Alive and Willful

—Newearth—

Like all Ingots, Lang’s body from the neck down was encased in techno-armor, but her form-fitting suit outlined the fantasies of multiple beings

She peered at the photo and had to ask—“Was I ever young?”

Riko, a slim Uanyi, could not say. He sat behind his desk with three saucepans lines up along the edge, a large datapad front and center, a holograph pad on the left, and a half-eaten slice of carrot cake on the right. Two baskets of colorful plants hung in front of a large window that now only reflected the outside security light.

Lang laid the photo on Riko’s desk and stared pointedly at the pots. “You keep your kitchen utensils close at hand, eh?”

With a shrug, Riko stood and strolled over to a small cooler unit. “I’m ordering new. Wendell tries, but the kid is hard on kitchenware.”

“I thought he just worked the tables.”

“He only has to look at a pot and it falls to the ground, dents, cracks to pieces…I don’t know. It’s like the kid has a magnetic storm following him everywhere he goes.”

Lang shrugged. “He was a reject that his mama saved. Few Ingots get through infancy—”

Riko hauled two cold drinks out of the cooler, snapped them open, and handed one to Lang.

Lang eyed the bright blue drink and grinned. “Thanks. I was feeling a little parched.”

“How about you?” Riko snapped up the photo. “This is old. Somebody treasured it. Most people only have digital memories.” One eyebrow rose. “Especially Ingots.”

Lang took a long swallow and leaned on the back of a dark brown office couch. “I was a reject too. You’d be surprised how many of us there are. In my case, I was borderline, and because I had a pretty face, they let me through. Never knew my mama or daddy DNA. That’s why Wendell is so different. His mama should never have known. She must’ve been from one of those back-to-nature groups. They practically stripped themselves naked, then tried to raise their young the old way.”

“But someone took this—” Riko waved the photo and took a swig from the bottle.

“Wasn’t any family relation—”

A knock on the door turned their attention.

Another quick drink and Riko strode over and swung open his office door.

Wendell stood in the hall between the café kitchen and the office, sheepish but smiling. “I fixed the sink. And everything is all cleaned up.”

Riko nodded. “Good.” He jogged to his desk and swiped one of the pots from the line. “Give your ma this. I decided to go with another set, so she can use it. No point in throwing it out.”

Wendell accepted the pot, cuddling it in both arms, a grateful servant of a kind benefactor.

Riko shuffled his feet, awkward kindness hindering his usual impatience. “You can go home now. See you in the morning.”

Reciting from memory, Wendell raised his eyes to the ceiling and pointed emphatically, his voice imitating Riko’s command tone. “Bright and early!”

The two grinned at each other.

The depth of the shared moment almost broke Lang’s heart. As Riko closed the door, still grinning, Lang lifted the photo again. “So tell me again—how’d you get this?”

“It was on my desk this morning.” He took a final swig, wiped his lips, and met Lang’s stare. “Either someone is having a little fun with us, or we’d better keep our eyes open.”

Lang drained the last of the blue liquid. “Maybe both.” She shrugged. “But as a reporter, I’d sure like to know who—” With a staggering step, Lang fell onto the couch. “Oh, God!”

Riko ran to her side, his eyes wide, frightened. “What?”

“There was a man…he looked like a man. But now…I wonder.” She dropped her head in her hands, her gaze roving to Riko’s face. “Do you believe in the supernatural?”

Riko choked. He yanked open the recycle depository and tossed in the two empty bottles. “I believe there’s more to the universe than we see or understand if that’s what you mean.”

A tumble of emotions swirled through Lang’s system. “I mean an intentional being—beings. Alive and willful.”

“Like Omega?”

“Could be…but more.” Lang rose; logic overthrowing confusion. “Like the fact that you and I met, that Faye and Taug are buddies, that Cerulean even exists…the million and one oddities, proving that more than mere chance defines out fate.”

Riko dropped onto the couch wearily. “You asked if you’d ever been young…well, I grew up in a war zone, my ma was killed trying to protect a way of life that no longer existed, and I certainly never felt young.” He met Lang’s eyes. “Never.”

Lang plunked down next to Riko, their shoulders touching. “Me neither. I was plucked out of the Ingot world by some unknown hand and trained as a reporter before my synapses were set. My body has always been my biggest asset, but collected nerves saved my life. Yet, I’ve always felt sad.”

In uncharacteristic generosity and intimacy, Riko clasped Lang’s hand. “Me too.”

For a moment, Lang felt young again.

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
~William Shakespeare

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Eight

Just the Beginning

“Come along, big fellow, keep up with me. For your large size, you take such tiny steps.” Governor Jane Right forged ahead of Taug down the long, bright hallway of the Territorial Capitol.

Taug’s somber gaze dropped to the floor. “It’s the boots. They aren’t built for a quick pace.”

Austere nameplates with gold lettering testified to the worthiness of the inhabitants secreted behind ornate doors on the top floor.

Taug ignored the doors and concentrated on his balance as he tried to stay close enough to the governor to have a word with her. “I thought I was going to meet you inside your office.”

She didn’t bother looking back as he trailed along behind. “What? And have every tongue wagging about Governor Right’s private meetings with an unknown Cresta? No, that wouldn’t do. It’s much better that you state your business out here while we walk. Keep your secrets in plain sight, I always say.”

“But couldn’t someone—”

“Eavesdrop? In the office, more likely. Listening devices planted from floor to ceiling, I’m sure. No one ever thinks of bugging the hallway. Besides, until I know what you want, I can’t waste my time.”

“A laboratory.” Taug huffed, attempting to adjust his breathing helm. Never in all the deepest waters…

“A laboratory? What for? We have plenty of labs in the hospitals, and I believe Central University has the best on the planet.” A simper twitched across her face. “Being a bit greedy, aren’t you?”

Taug slowed his pace as they neared a narrow, circular stairway extending from the blue, star-spackled, domed ceiling down to a brightly lit, green-tiled floor, creating the illusion of descending from a brilliant night sky to sunny Newearth.

One tentacle stroked Taug’s chin doubtfully. “Not at all. I have an idea that cannot be shared, except with a chosen few.”

“Huh.” Governor Right pointed to the steep steps. “Can you handle these?”

Taug hesitated. “Possibly, if we go slow enough.”

“Here give me your hand… or a tentacle. Whatever.”

Taug placed a tentacle inside Governor Right’s surprisingly strong grip and held on for dear life.

Concentrating on Taug’s every step, like a mother taking her toddler into deep waters, the middle-aged woman furrowed her brow. “I need to know who’s giving the party and why.”

Taug laid each mechanical boot firmly on the step before lifting the other free. A sudden flashback of struggling onto land for the first time as a hatchling flashed through his mind.

“There is no party, I assure you. Only me and one other. I will have to hire a few assistants, but they will be completely in the dark as to the grander purpose.”

“So what’s the grand purpose?”

“To create crossbreeds.”

Governor Right shook her head apparently at both their slow descent and the comment. “Whatever for?”

“To become invincible. Why else?”

The governor’s eyes never strayed from his boots as Taug inched himself down. “Invincible? How?”

“If I can blend Cresta intelligence with human, terrestrial capability, I can cultivate the brilliance of each species in the service of those who know how to manage a planet.”

“Any others?”

Taug glanced up, an eyebrow raised, his mouth orifice puckered.

An eye-roll communicated the governor’s impatience with Taug’s obtuse understanding. “Why not Cresta with Uanyi? Or human with Ingot?”

Taug shrugged off the governor’s unbounded ambition. “There are no limits to the possibilities, but Cresta and human would be the best combination to begin with.”

Governor Right’s hand flew out protectively as Taug stumbled. Her voice hardened. “Something could go wrong, and we’d have a mess on our hands.”

The green-tiled floor was only one step away and Taug beamed. “Many things could go right, and we’d have the most versatile, powerful beings in our grasp.”

The governor’s tight lips broke into a mirrored grin as she assisted Taug onto solid footing. “Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Taug wiggled his tentacle free of Governor Right’s grasp. “Thank you.”

Glancing around before starting forward, Governor Right beckoned him to stay close. “What’ll I get?”

“Whatever you need.” Taug wrapped his tentacles around his middle as he negotiated his way across the crowded floor. Even a minor slap with a tentacle could have serious consequences.

Her grin turned ironic. She glanced back. “Your Cresta word of honor?”

Taug offered a slight bow as he hustled out a wide doorway behind her.

A cool breeze played havoc with the governor’s coiffured hair. “Thought as much. I want a full report each month, in person. Nothing written, of course.” Halting on a busy sidewalk, she scanned the street.

Pedestrians rushed at a city pace on either side as the Vandi traffic roared in urbane, noonday routine.

“Naturally.”

Never taking her eyes off her environment, Governor Right leaned over and whispered. “Oh, and I want to meet one, as soon as you have it ready.”

Taug stiffened. “Would that be necessary?”

“No. But it’d be thrilling. Everyone needs some excitement now and again.”

Taug bowed to the inscrutable.

With a new light in her eye, the governor lifted her arm and waved with broad, commanding strokes. “Ah, here comes my secretary. I have a meeting with the Inter-Alien Alliance committee in a few minutes. Pay attention now.” She wiggled two beckoning fingers at a man crossing traffic. “George! Here!” She again leaned toward Taug. “My private secretary. Contact him when you need something.”

Taug extracted a datapad from his bio-suit. “I have a list.”

Snorting back her laugh, the governor beckoned George again. “How very efficient of you. So Cresta.”

A snappy dresser with black hair, brooding eyes, and squared shoulders sprang across the street and lightly stepped forward.

“George, this is Taug, a special ambassador from Cresta. We are assisting him in a private matter. You’ll see that he gets everything he needs.”

George appraised Taug in a sweeping and ever-so-disdainful glance. His voice was as dry as the sidewalk he stood upon. “Certainly.”

“Thank you.” Taug turned to Governor Right. “It has been an honor.”

Governor Right grinned, grasped one of Taug’s tentacles, and shook it formally. “Just the beginning, I’m sure.”

Taug stood back as George led the governor towards a waiting vehicle. The patient Cresta cradled his aching tentacle close to his body, his half-lidded eyes glowing like embers.

~~~

Curved walls glowed white against state-of-the-art, red shelving units packed with pristine lab equipment. An unoccupied dissection tube extended from one wall, while medical instruments stood lined up on neat tables like soldiers ready for the next battle.

“Do you like it?” Taug’s usual confidence expanded as he waved a tentacle in an arching manner, encompassing the vast room in one magnificent sweep. “I always wanted to follow up on my father’s work, and now I have my chance.”

Derik took a tentative step into the massive laboratory. “But where… how? Did the Cresta government give you all this?”

Taug lumbered closer, a sheepish grin spreading his puffy lips wide. “Ah, no, that would be most unlikely. The Cresta High Council would like nothing more than to see me safely returned to Crestar. They have plans. I have plans. At some distant point, the two shall meet.”

Derik appraised the expensive bio-scanners, surgical tools, the specimen containers, steel tables, bright lights, tubs of various solutions, and the central dissecting tube with miniature tubes, like petals, jutting from the wall. The entire room was bathed in a soft, white glow. In the back, a transparent wall offered a view into an enormous aquarium.

Derik stepped closer, his jaw dropping and his eyes widening. “You keep fish—in your own Cresta pool?”

“Just for eating, when I get hungry after a hard day.”

“Why not just keep them preserved, frozen or something?”

Taug followed Derik’s astonished gaze and burst into giggles, his tentacles writhing in mirth. “I forget; you are as ignorant as a hatchling.”

Derik itched to take off his mechanical boots. He couldn’t account for this sudden longing to jump into the Cresta-sized aquarium.

Taug scooted closer and, with a tilt of his head, appraised Derik’s gaze. “Yes, you feel it, don’t you? The pull of water? Once you’ve been trained, we’ll go in together. It’ll be fun. It may be the most pleasant thing you’ve ever done.”

Derik’s eyes remained fixed on the pool, his tone apathetic. “I’ve been swimming before, but I never liked it much. It was okay—”

“But it never felt right. Of course not. A Crestar pool is quite different. A human would no more enjoy a dip in a Crestonian sea than he would like to splash about in a bowl of vegetable soup. But for us, it’s magnificent.”

Derik slid his hands across the thick glass. His splayed fingers caressed the surface. His voice grew husky. “When?”

Taug nodded, a gleam in his eye darting from the pool to Derik. “Soon. But first I need to understand you better. You are unique in a universe of unique beings. That said, I must understand how to best adapt you to Cresta life.”

Never shifting his gaze off the pool, Derik hunched his shoulders. “Cresta life? Why? Newearth is my home.”

“Someday you may wish to visit our…your world.” Taug’s golden eyes appraised Derik’s form. “It would be a shame if that visit were hampered by poor adaptations. Once we understand your biology better, we can fashion appropriate gear to make your visit on Crestar most enjoyable. I assure you, many Crestas will view you as a hero. You will swim everywhere acclaimed—”

“I’m no hero!” Derik’s voice sharpened as he slapped the glass. “Just a mixed-breed, nobody.”

Taug laid a tentacle around Derik’s arm and gripped it firmly. “One thing you must learn now, before anything else: Crestas are scientists. We have inquisitive minds that never rest. No Inter-Alien Alliance or planetary treaty can keep us from our natural right—to pursue knowledge. Anyone who assists us is a hero.”

Derik’s gaze bore down on Taug’s face. “How?”

“Allow me to study your biology and learn how my father created you. Then, perhaps someday, you will not be alone.”

Turning from Taug back to the pool of murky green water, Derik’s voice fell to a whisper. “I’m not alone.” He darted a quick glance at Taug. “What’s in it for you—personally—I mean?”

“Success brings many rewards. Don’t worry; I’ll be well compensated, in the end.” Taug padded to a wall on which hung a variety of breathing apparatus. “Though I planned on waiting, I think you need a little reward now. Here, put this on and come with me.”

Derik held the apparatus at eye level, scrutinizing it. A quizzical expression spread across his face. “What is it?”

“It’ll help you breathe while we swim. I’ve been adapting it, just for you. I want to see how well it works before we begin our studies.”

“So, you’re not going to kill me—ever?”

“I have no immediate plans to kill you.” Taug lumbered toward a side hallway.

Derik trailed along behind. “Somehow, that didn’t sound as comforting as I hoped.”

Taug and Derik disappeared into the dark hall, leaving the laboratory silent and empty.

Suddenly the waters in the tank were stirred and millions of bubbles floated in an arc toward the surface. Taug, swimming as gracefully as a porpoise, flashed by. His feet, free of the mechanical boots, paddled like luminescent fins. He circled up and around, dashing about like a child at play, swirling bubbles in his wake.

He dove away and returned with one tentacle wrapped around Derik. The breathing apparatus with attached goggles was strapped tight across Derik’s face. His wide eyes stared straight ahead, frozen in panic. Despite Taug’s support, Derik remained as limp as a noodle.

Taug began stoking Derik’s arm with a free tentacle.

The anxiety in Derik’s eyes faded. He began kicking his legs and stroking the water with his arms. Slowly, but more confidently with each movement, he began swimming…free as a fish in the green, Cresta sea.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ~Ernest Hemingway

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Seven

Humanity

Derik sat across from Justine, marveling at the vision of loveliness before him. His hand trembled as he laid it on the immaculate tablecloth in front of hers.

A crowd roared in the background. Three opposing teams rushed onto a hard floor, swinging metal balls at the end of stout poles.

Justine flicked a glance at the game before returning to Derik’s gaze.

Derik shakily touched her fingertips.

Justine observed his imploring hand, mesmerized. Slowly, she extended her hand and intertwined her fingers with his.

~~~

Inside the Breakfast Nook, the Ingot hostess pounded across the room. Clare, settled at a long bench, scrolled through her datapad and tapped her fingers on the smooth tabletop.

Derik bustled through the doorway, dark circles under his eyes, searching the room. When he saw Clare, he exhaled in relief and rushed over. “Here you are. I woke up late and couldn’t find this place again. I thought I’d miss—”

The hostess clumped back to the table. “Order?”

Derik swallowed as he appraised the huge Ingot. “Just coffee and a sweet roll—please.”

The hostess charged off.

Derik shook his head. “Is she always so charming?”

“Only when she doesn’t know you.”

Derik tugged at his collar. “You have something to tell me?”

Clare sipped her coffee, assessing him over the lip of the cup. By the time she leaned back, she had made a decision. “You got the report I sent about your DNA results and the ramifications?” Returning his nod, she continued. “You’ll have to deal with some heavy Cresta fallout. You’ll likely be a pretty smart guy as your brain capacity increases, and you’ll live a whole lot longer than the rest of us.”

Derik shrugged. “Yeah, I read all that. But it doesn’t really change anything. I’m still Derik Erlandson. As a matter of fact, I’ve met someone. She’s…well, she’s beautiful, brainy, and has a working knowledge of Oldearth poetry. Wild, eh? But what’s really weird, she likes me.”

“I take it, you like her.” Clare’s expression remained neutral, an impartial judge assessing the latest case.

A nonchalant wave of the hand and an airy tone understated his exuberance. “We’re going out again tonight.”

Clare slapped down her mug and leaned forward. “Listen, I don’t want to make you paranoid or anything, but just so you know, there’re a lot of female hired guns. They get close to their victims and then—”

As if jolted by lightning, Derik jerked forward. “Justine isn’t a hired gun!” Taking a deep breath, he scrambled for a hold on his emotions as his gaze ping-ponged off the walls. “She’s wonderful and beautiful and perfect in every way. So what if she has a mysterious past?”

“Uh-huh.”

Derik rubbed his chin nervously. “I tried looking her up, and I couldn’t find anything.”

Clare’s eyebrows rose. “That does not bode well. You checked everywhere?”

Derik bit his lip. “Everywhere that’s legal.”

Clare flicked out her datapad. “Well, just to be on the safe side, let me look into it. What’s her name?”

“Justine.”

“Justine what?”

“Just Justine. She said she didn’t believe in last names.”

“Better and better….” Tucking a wisp of hair back into place, Clare stared into Derik’s eyes. “Okay, I had every intention of telling you that I can’t help you because, to be honest, I don’t think I can. I asked a friend about you, and he wasn’t too happy. Good guy, just a little protective. Don’t worry, he’s old country, a Luxonian from way back. Anyway, he advised me to drop the case and let him look into it. Last time I talked with him, he gave me the most annoying answers, full of tell- me-nothings. But I trust him. He’d warn me if—”

“Cerulean, right? I met him. Nice enough, but the guy has really bad timing. You talk about me a lot?”

“You met him?”

“He came by my place, warned me to be careful. Like I needed a warning.”

Clare folded her arms across her chest, ready for her next lecture. “Listen, Derik, Cerulean’s a pretty important man— Luxonian—I mean. He pointed out—”

“He’s Luxonian?”

“The one who pounded together the Inter-Alien-Alliance.”

“He’s either as brave as an intergalactic trader or an utter fool.”

Clare smashed her hands together into one clenched fist as her tone rose in intensity. “Anyway, he told me that it’d be in everyone’s best interest if I try to keep you alive and well.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why?’”

“Taug has a point—”

“Perhaps you should have your head examined! Don’t confuse me! I had this all figured out. Do you remember the old stories about when Oldearth was being polluted, these environmentalists convinced people to change their ways by showing them how a healthy planet would help everyone?”

Derik raked his fingers through his hair as he dropped his weary head onto his hand. “Your point?”

“Well, if the world isn’t safe for you—is it safe for anyone?”

Derik tilted his head in a reflective attitude. “Am I worth all this trouble? I just want to be happy a while and let fate have its way. I’m tired of fighting this.”

Clare put her hand over Derik’s. “How about Justine?”

“She doesn’t need me.”

“Doesn’t she?”

“She’s already perfect. I’m only a mixed—”

“Maybe she needs someone to love. Maybe she isn’t attracted to your biology but your humanity.”

Derik snorted, his gaze turning inward. “Depends on how you define humanity.”

Clare slid off the bench and stared down at Derik. “My point exactly.”

~~~

The sun slipped behind the horizon hours ago, but Bala wasn’t ready to return to hearth and home quite yet. A single lamp pooled light on a large, mahogany desk. A framed lace embroidered with the words “Hoggsworth Family” hung at his right. Bala accidentally tilted it as he leaned over, searching through Mrs. Hoggsworth’s computer database.

Governor Jane Right? What about Jane Right? A bigwig in the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, she had recently made a splash on Universal News by discovering a cache of old files that proved that her already illustrious family had a new cause to strut their stuff. He scrolled through the information and frowned. But here was a completely different take on that particular family history from a source named Justine. Hmm…

Bala sat down and ran through the files again, mumbling to himself. Who’s Justine? Whoa, if this little lady were alive today, she’d be a cache of information. Governor Jane Right better not believe in ghosts.

~~~

Bala ran at full speed, his lungs ready to burst from the effort. He slid past playing children, a speeding autoskimmer, and an amorous Uanyi couple before he reached home. He slammed through the door, skirted past a tail-waving dog, and just managed to slip onto his chair before Kendra placed a steaming plate of rice and vegetables on the table.

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Man-of-mine, if you insist on being late to everything, including my fine dinners, I’m going to tie a string to you and yank when I want you home.”

Bala surveyed the table full of wide-eyed children, his eyes twinkling as he mimicked being yanked by an invisible cord. He fell to the floor, writhing, sending the children into fits of laughter.

Kendra nudged him with her foot, her eyes rolling. “Get up before it gets cold.”

Bala returned to his seat, but his bright eyes dimmed at the sight of vegetables and rice.

Kendra lifted her hand in warning. “Don’t start with your steak and egg fantasies. I’ve got young-uns to raise. You want us to get hauled before an Inter-Alien Sensitivity Commission? No, siree!”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking it and that’s just as bad.”

Bala gripped his fork like a warrior facing a battle and set his jaw. He peered at the table full of children. “Remember, I’m doing this for you.”

~~~

Bala leaned back against a maple tree aglow with fiery autumn colors and wrapped his arms around his knees, studying the sunset through falling leaves.

Kendra strolled over.

Bala’s gaze stayed fixed straight ahead. “They in bed?”

With a muted groan, she slid down next to him. “Every last, blessed one of them.”

Bala put his arm around Kendra and drew her close. “You’re one fine mama.”

“That I am.” She appraised his somber profile. “You’re not a bad papa.”

“I try.”

Kendra shared the sunset. “What’s it this time?”

He turned his gaze, and the failing sunlight played hide and seek over his features. “Hmmm?”

Caressing Bala’s furrowed brow, Kendra locked onto his gaze. “That expression. I’d know it on the dark side of the moon. You’re worried about something.”

Bala sighed and played with Kendra’s fingers, lacing his with hers. “You know, I like puzzles as much as the next man, but sometimes I hate the picture after I’ve put it all together.”

“Want to tell me about it?”

“I want to, but I’m not sure I should. Some pretty important people might be involved.”

“By important, you mean….”

“They have resources. I don’t.”

Kendra leaned in so that their noses almost touched. “In all the time I’ve known you, Bala, you have never shirked from a challenge. Remember the First All-Species Olympics?”

A half grin peeked out of Bala’s crooked smile. “That was only in fun.”

“You almost killed yourself. Iceberg climbing, they called it; idiotic, I called it. And you all scared the penguins witless.”

With a deep breath, Bala blinked back the sudden moisture in his eyes. “Back then, I didn’t think about it. I was just playing. But now—”

A child’s wail pierced the evening.

Kendra shot to her feet nearly as fast as Bala. She patted his arm in restraint. “You’re worried about us. I understand; I worry about us, too. But, man-o-mine, you’ve got to live. If you tie your spirit to safety, you’ll have to lock yourself at home. Not that you’d be safe here—”

The crying rose a decibel. Kendra strode forward. “Coming, baby.” She peered over her shoulder at Bala’s barely discernible outline against the falling night. “God made us of strong stuff. But remember, you got to the top by building steps.”

Bala’s eyes glowed as he watched Kendra retreat inside. When the shrieking stopped abruptly, a slow smile spread wide across his face.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go. ~T. S. Elliot

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Six

A Small Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A lie that you could never explain away.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Victim?”

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

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

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

“How?”

“If necessary, you will kill my patient.”

“If I would rather not?”

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

“When did I say that?”

“You have lived that way your whole existence.”

“I might have changed.”

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

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

Taug twitched behind her.

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

Taug beamed.

~~~

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

Derik bustled by, nearly knocking it into the street.

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

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

Justine’s eyes narrowed.

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

The teen nodded and bounced to his feet.

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

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

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

The driver protested her innocence, writhing in misery.

Lying prone, Justine looked away and waited.

Derik hobbled over. “Can I help?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is that?”

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

Cerulean nodded toward the couch. “May I?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only thirty-seven percent—remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cerulean wandered closer to the woman, mesmerized.

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

“Justine?”

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

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

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

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

Cerulean nodded. “Justine.”

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will see to matters.”

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

“Understood.”

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

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

The screen blinked into blackness.

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

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

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Four

Good Fortune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crowd laughed.

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

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

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

She sailed across the street, scrolling through her datapad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hostess pounded away, huffing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And me?”

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

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

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

Clare’s eyebrows rose. “I always do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare stepped on the threshold when a hand stopped her.

“Excuse me. But are you Detective Smith?”

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

“What can I do for you?”

“Can we talk somewhere…privately?”

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

“Fine.”

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

“No, a missing person.”

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

“You can’t. He’s not missing. Yet.”

~~~

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

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

“Hi! Have you been waiting long?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare’s eyebrows rose.

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

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

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

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

“Can’t say. I was adopted.”

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

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

Clare’s eyes softened. “Ouch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds good. But that hardly explains—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derik and Clare stared, dumbfounded.

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

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

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

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Two

For One Purpose

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

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

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

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

“A waste?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taug’s tentacles curled thoughtfully. “Forgotten?”

“And forgiven.”

“I’ll need its location.”

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

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

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

Taug stepped aside. “Thank you.”

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

The human specimen floated in the examination tube, alone.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taug mimicked the bow and moved silently after his host.

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

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

“You’re here on business?”

Taug’s brow furrowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guard sneered his reply.

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

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

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

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

“Now, please.” Taug cleared his throat.

Justine jerked.

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

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

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

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

“Will you throttle me, Justine?”

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

The guard stifled a laugh.

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

“No.”

“Then I won’t.”

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

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

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

The guard stalked out the door.

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

She stood and appeared to be appraising her internal workings.

“Are you all right?”

“It appears so.”

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

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

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

“Why? I mean, why have you…?”

“Turned you back on?”

“I would have said awakened.”

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

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

“I awakened you because I need you.”

Justine paced across the cylindrical room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was not my question.”

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

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

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

Justine stared at the screen in unblinking fascination.

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

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

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

“What plans?”

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

“Why?”

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

“Object?”

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

“What’s its name?”

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

“So, I’m an assassin—again?”

“If need be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter One

All My Sins Remembered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is my name.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Supreme Judge nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

“Cerulean.”

“Thank you, Cerulean.”

“You’re thanking me for…?”

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

“I read the full reports.”

“Really?”

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

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

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

She shrugged. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

The brush moved faster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then goodbye.”

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

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

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

Silence.

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

“You too.”

“Not likely.”

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

~~~

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

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

“Do you have anything to say?”

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

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

“I do.”

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

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

~~~

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

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

“Oldearth poetry?”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

Cerulean placed his hands on hers.

The technician swiped a bar on his datapad.

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

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

The table slid into a receiving hole in the wall.

“Nothing.” Cerulean turned away.

“It wasn’t human. Sir…?”

The door clanged behind Cerulean.

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Seven

—Lux—

Boiling Lava Rocks

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

A chime rang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And why did he contact you?”

“He said he needed help.”

Sienna waited.

“He knew we needed help.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—OldEarth—

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

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

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

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

Ark glanced at Zuri.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sterling blinked like a mystified child. “We?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ark called. “Leaving so soon?”

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

Ark frowned. “Naughty girlfriend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ark peered at him. “What’re you—?”

“Creating a diversion.”

An explosion blasted from inside the cave.

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

Crouching over, Zuri skedaddled for the cave entrance.

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

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

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

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

“What then?”

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

“Boiling lava rocks!”

“Like I said.”

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Six

—Mountains and Valleys—

Following in Their Footsteps

Ishtar and Tobia climbed hills, trudged through mountain passes, and marched day after hot, sticky day, rarely talking and never smiling.

When the outline of a village rose in the distance, Tobia pointed and cleared his throat. “Maybe, we’ll finally enjoy a little hospitality.”

A memory of the reception he received from Lud’s clan flashed through Ishtar’s mind. He stumbled, righted himself, and swallowed. “That’d be a welcome change.”

As they drew near, Tobia wrinkled his nose. “What’s that awful stench?”

Ishtar froze, then his arm jerked out and he gripped Tobia’s sleeve. “Wait here a moment.” He jogged ahead and circled the first hut. Oh, God! Bile rose in his throat as he stared at the remains of a massacre.

Stagnant blood pooled on the ground and splattered across the dwellings. Snarling dogs chewed on unnamed bones.

His stomach heaving, Ishtar ran to a grassy bank and soon retched the contents of his stomach.

Tobia jogged forward, laid his hand on Ishtar’s back, and turned away. His voice fell to a whisper. “I would too—if I had anything in me.”

Wiping his mouth, Ishtar clenched his jaw and straightened. “Sorry. I should be stronger—with all I’ve seen.” He shook his head. “But it was a shock.”

Tobia crept forward, his hand over his mouth and nose. “You think anyone’s still alive?”

Ishtar moved stealthily into the village. “There’s only one way to find out.”

As they searched through the primitive village, a groan rose in the air. Ishtar quickened his pace.

A skinny, toothless old man lay near a grass hut. A bloody cut on his leg, purple bruises on his face, and the way he cradled his left arm told the tale of recent events.

Tobia glanced around. “You know more about healing, so you can tend to him while I see if I look for others.”

Ishtar knelt at the old man’s side and helped him to sit up.

The old man snatched at Ishtar’s sleeve. “Water!”

A jug near a doorway caught Ishtar’s eye. He grabbed it and jogged around the village, a sour taste still burning in his mouth. A creek bubbled in the distance. He filled the jug, slaked his own thirst, and returned to the old man.

The old man’s hands shook as he slurped great mouthfuls. He wiped his lips with the back of his trembling hand and nodded. “Thank you.”

“What’s your name?”

“Wael. I was the patriarch of this ruined village.”

Leading a dark-skinned, wrinkled old woman and another old man, Tobia wandered back to Ishtar. “I found a few others too weak to rise, but with water and food, they’ll soon recover.”

Ishtar passed the jug to the newcomers and stood, surveying the scene. “Raiders must’ve killed the men and taken the women and children.”

Tobia pointed to the rummy-eyed elders crouching near at hand. “Why leave them?”

Ishtar shrugged. “They’re no threat and no use. It was easier to get what they wanted and leave.”

One old woman groaned. “I wish I were dead.”

Wael shook his head as he surveyed the bodies shriveling in the sun. “Who’ll bury them?”

Ishtar glanced at Tobia, and they shared an understanding gaze.

~~~

Tobia relished the cool breeze of evening. Rubbing his aching back, he returned from the burial duty and stood before the strongest of the old women. He wiped his sweaty brow. “We need something to eat.”

Her limbs shaking, the old woman rose and limped to a ramshackle hut on the outskirts of the village. Glancing aside, she peered at Tobia. “My name’s Olna, and I be the oldest living member of the clan…not much to boast of now, I know. But—” She ambled inside.

Tobia waited, rubbing grit from his eyes.

Wood scraped across dirt and a labored grunt rose.

“If you want to eat, come help me, boy.”

Tobia crossed over the threshold and found Olna leaning on a sturdy table.

“Move it over there.” She pointed to the east wall.

Dutifully, Tobia shoved the table aside and watched Olna rip a covering of wood from the back wall. From a deep hole, she tugged a large, tightly woven basket. Tobia gripped the handle and pulled it into the light. “What’s this?”

“Our salvation.” Olna grinned a nearly toothless smile. “I’ve seen my share of attacks, and we old women know to keep precious things well hidden.”

Flipping back the basket lid, Tobia’s heart sang. Uncounted packets lay before his eyes like a sparkling stream to a thirsty man. He lifted one and unwrapped the leaves. Inside, grain the color of honey glistened, sending his stomach into spasms and his mouth-watering. “Thank God.”

Olna nodded. “And you can thank me, too, while you’re at it. No one remembers the old ways and tucks good food aside for bad times—no one but Old Olna.”

Tobia wrapped his arm around the old woman and gently hugged her shoulder. “I thank you, indeed.”

~~~

Ishtar clasped his hands before his face and pondered the melancholy assembly before him. They were fed for the moment. But their slim resources would not last long. He peered at Olna as she perched on a bench outside her family hut, her hands still, and her gaze unfocused. “What’ll you do now, Olna?”

Olna’s head lifted a fraction. “What is there now but to die?”

Three old men and two other women crouched around a meager fire. Wael shook his finger at her. “Die then, old woman, but the rest of us” —he waved at other survivors— “we’ve a mind to live yet a little longer.”

Shrugging, Olna turned her gaze to the food basket. “You go on then, Wael, and farm the land, scare up some meat, and pick rations to last us through the season.”

Frowning, Wael rose and shuffled to a hut. He grabbed the shovel leaning against the wall. “I’ll start now. Don’t think I can’t.”

Ishtar rose and glanced at Tobia, who wrapped a wet cloth around the injured arm of one old man. “You won’t survive here, alone. You’ll have to come with us.”

Olna shook her head. “I don’t know that I can leave them…” She peered at the mounds in the distance. “You buried them, but someone should watch over their remains and pray for their spirits.”

Wael leaned on the shovel, his eyes glistening. “They would want us to survive.” He slapped the shovel. “What else did they fight for…but to have someone live…and remember them?”

Tobia stepped forward. “We’ll place markers around the mound so that anyone coming through will know of them. Though many perished, they were not forgotten.”

Ishtar rose and stepped toward the first hut. “We’ll leave tomorrow. But before then, let’s gather everything useful—anything you wish to take.” He glanced at the setting sun. “Time passes, and we need to move on.”

Tobia bit his lip. “Where do you think the raiders have gone?”

Ishtar sucked in a deep breath. “That’s what I’m afraid to find out.”

~~~

Tobia shared the last of the grain with Olna and the assembly on the third evening of their journey. Everyone settled around a small fire, exhausted after a hard day’s march through thick grass under a warm sun.

Olna chuckled as she swished the grains in her mouth, softening them before swallowing.

Startled, Tobia nudged her with his shoulder. “What’s so funny?”

After wiping her lips, Olna smiled and stared at the pink horizon. “My granddaughter loved to sit in my lap and hear the old stories. She was never content until I told at least three.” She lifted three fingers to clarify and shook her head, her grin fading. “Ay, but there’s no one to remember them now.”

With a sigh, Tobia shrugged. “Perhaps you can tell them to our children. Though they belong to another clan, we’re all related in some measure, created by the same God. The stories belong to all of us—do they not?”

Tears slipped down the old woman’s face. “But there’s few of us old ones left. Those brutes will attack the next village soon.”

Jerking upright, Tobia glanced from Ishtar back to the woman. “You know where they’re heading?”

“Though they spoke poorly, they questioned us about the nearest clans. We refused to answer…until forced. But the dogs learned what they wanted. This final conquest will be their greatest triumph, they said—”

Rising, Ishtar stepped closer, knelt, and peered into the old woman’s eyes. “What direction?”

Olna shrugged. “We’re following in their footsteps, I think.” Heaving a miserable sigh, she shuddered. “They’re far from their homeland…but the leader said they’d soon turn back.” She wiped away her tears. “Won’t be soon enough for those in their path.”

Tobia gripped Ishtar’s shoulder. “Could they be heading—?”

Ishtar shook his head. “There’s not much between us and home—nothing to turn them aside.”

Tobia leapt to his feet, his stomach churning. “We must warn them!”

Meeting Tobia’s gaze, Ishtar nodded. “Yes, we must.”

Heart pounding, Tobia reached for his staff. “I’ll leave right away.”

Ishtar grabbed his arm. “You were lost and starved, wandering in the desert not long ago.” He glanced at the old people hunch-shouldered and clearly afraid. “They trust you—they need you.” He retrieved his own staff. “I’ll go.”

A ripple of terror washed over Tobia. “But, Ishtar, you’re the enemy—remember?”

With a clenched jaw, Ishtar faced the setting sun. “Not anymore.”

Barely controlling his trembling limbs, Tobia watched Ishtar sprint into the diminishing horizon. Vitus’ face rose like a specter in his mind. Tears blinded him.

Olna patted his arm. “He’s a strong man, that one. Don’t worry, he’ll be safe.”

Tobia’s throat constricted. “It’s not him I’m worried about.”

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” ~T. S. Eliot

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Five

—Stone City—

Outside the Walls

Eoban stood on a hill outside the city walls and watched flames flicker from distant hearths. He rubbed his growling stomach.

With a smile plastered on his face, Obed jogged forward and glanced aside at Barak. “I spoke with a family at the bottom of the hill.” He pointed to a small assembly stationed around a stew pot that hung over a modest blaze. “I told them that we’re travelers in search of a lost clan member, and they’ve agreed to let us spend the night. They have plenty of stew, Eoban, and they’re willing to share with us.”

Shoving off from an ancient tree, Barak rubbed his hands together. “I could certainly use a home-cooked meal.” He started after Obed and called back. “Hurry up, Eoban. We’re not waiting for you.” He and Obed loped down the hill.

Eoban frowned and hesitated. His stomach rumbled again. He blew air between his lips and jogged forward.

As they assembled around the fire, everyone gave way so the three men could partake of the offered stew and fresh bread. Soon, a strong drink was passed around, and in little time, Eoban’s mood expanded. After eating and drinking his fill, he flopped on the ground and stretched out between Obed and Barak, who sat cross-legged.

Various community members sat on the ground or on benches drawn back from the fire. Muted conversations flowed in all directions.

Propping himself on one arm, Eoban’s only discomfort lay in questions nagging his mind. He licked his tingling lips and launched his words like rocks. “So, how is it that a people who cook so well also ravage and enslave others?”

Deafening silence filled the air. Faces froze and limbs stilled.

Obed whacked Eoban on the side and muttered. “You repay their hospitality with an insult?”

Barak jerked to his knees, scanning the crowd. He met an old man’s gaze. “I’m sorry for my rude friend. Clearly, Eoban’s had too much to drink. You see, we’ve been traveling, and he’s had many—”

Stumbling to his feet, Eoban waved his arms, cutting off Barak’s conciliatory speech. “I can’t stand brutality! That’s my grievance. It makes me sick. It should make you sick—but you’ve thrived.” He jutted his arm toward the main gate. “Your whole city—”

The old man rose steady and clear-eyed. “My name is Daniel, it means judge. I am the one who settles arguments in our community.” He stepped closer to Eoban and fixed his gaze. “You have judged us before knowing the truth.”

Moving off to the side and crossing his arms, Obed shook his head. “So often the case with him.”

Daniel stepped around Eoban, returning to the central fire. “Perhaps, it’s your heart that speaks and not your reason.”

A low murmur rumbled through the crowd.

Daniel stared at the flames. “Those who live outside the walls are not the same as those who live inside.” He exhaled a long breath. “We are not much better than slaves ourselves. Chains do not bind us, but we’re held captive nonetheless. Having no voice, we have no strength to change the laws or fight the armies that protect them.”

Barak nodded, his eyes downcast.

Obed glared at Eoban with a told-you-so look.

Eoban returned the glare, his voice rising. “You know the laws are wrong, yet you don’t fight them?”

A youth sprang up from the circle. “Knowing something is wrong doesn’t put a spear in your hand. They’d kill us—”

Disgust welled inside Eoban, and his words rose like a snarl. “So, not brutes but cowards, then?”

As if in slow motion, Obed marched forward, clenching his fist.

Before he realized what happened, jolting pain seared through Eoban’s head, and he felt himself spinning. Darkness swallowed him.

~~~

Barak sat before a waning fire in the early morning light, watching the last stars fade into the brightening sky. Obed slumbered at his right, and Eoban still lay sprawled on the ground where he fell.

After much grunting and groaning and several vain attempts to sit up, Eoban gave a mighty roar and rolled to his knees and then staggered to his feet. He peered around, rubbing his jaw. “I know what happened, so don’t pretend.”

Barak closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest, smothering a groan.

“Try as you might, you can’t excuse him! Such behavior must be roundly condemned. I hope you did me justice and kept our clan’s reputation intact.”

Choking, Barak stared wide-eyed at Eoban.

Eoban leaned in, gazing into Barak’s eyes. “You and Obed did do me justice—didn’t you?”

After rising and stepping a safe distance away, Barak peered into Eoban’s bloodshot eyes. “It was Obed who knocked you out.”

“Obed?” Eoban smoothed his rough chin. “I’ll have a word—”

Frustration seizing him, Barak stomped close, gripped Eoban’s arm, and tugged him to the summit of the nearby hill.

The glorious white city spread before them, encircled by a wall with tall and short gates facing each direction. Guards marched along the wall, while merchants and villagers started their daily routines. Women opened shops, old men swept dirt from their steps, mothers bustled children to the well with empty jugs, and boys chased flocks into open fields.

Eoban peered at the view and then glanced aside. “What?”

Pointing to a temple roof rising high above the wall, Barak barely controlled his temper. “There! The inhabitants of this metropolis worship a figure that has a man’s head, the body of a great cat, and the wings of an eagle. It needs daily sacrifice to keep the city flourishing. Sound familiar?”

Eoban scowled. “Haruz must have studied here. But if Ishtar is in residence, I’m not sure we’ll ever get him away.”

Clapping his hands together in mute fury, Barak turned away. “Who accused our hosts of being cowards?”

“I’ve been talking in my sleep…?”

Scrambling footsteps turned their attention.

A twinkling smile in his eyes, Obed sauntered forward. “Have a good sleep, Eoban?” He winked at Barak.

Barak took a step backward.

Returning the smile, Eoban chuckled. “Oh, yes, slept like a baby. Blazing stars exploded in my head when I hit the hard ground—what more could a man ask?” Eoban clenched his fist. “If only you could share my joy.” He landed a heavy blow on Obed’s chin.

Obed spun backward and sprawled in the dust. He glared at Eoban, his eyes blazing.

Barak stepped over with a hand out, but Eoban blocked him and gripped Obed by the arm and hauled him to his feet. “Now, we’re even.”

After spitting on the ground, Obed rubbed his jaw, the fire in his eyes dying to embers. “Someone had to shut you up. Or do you think it’s generous to insult the people who feed you and treat you with kindness?”

“It was not their kindness I objected to but rather their weakness.”

Barak lifted his hands and stepped between the two men. “Enough!” He glanced from Eoban to Obed and then pointed to the city. “Or I’ll leave you two to kill each other while I go search the temple for Ishtar.”

With a snort and a dismissive wave, Obed surveyed the glinting white temple. “Ought to be interesting.”

Eoban scrambled down the hill. “Ishtar would end up in a place like that. Let’s go.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Try not to be too impressed, Obed. We can’t bring any of it home.”

With a storm cloud rising in his stomach, Barak followed the two men.

“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”  ~James Baldwin

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Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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