Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-One

The Human Experience

Bala ran around the outdoor Waukee middle-school track with his skinny arms bent at the elbows, moving like the pistons of an Oldearth engine. His breath floated into the frozen air and wafted away.

Clare leaned against the woven metal fence while the sky darkened. An ache built behind her eyes. Hugging her winter coat around her slender waist did little to diminish the cold that seeped into her shaking bones. She was frozen to the core, and no coat in the world could warm her.

Bala turned aside at the entrance and swung his pounding footsteps in her direction. Panting, he heaved up next to her and bent over in an attempt to regain his exhausted breath. “What’cha doing here? I thought we’d meet at the Nook for something sweet and hot.”

Clare forced a grin. “Always thinking about food, aren’t you?”

Bala puffed smokestacks in her direction and wobbled a skinny arm. “If you were born with this metabolism, you’d be obsessed with keeping body and soul together too, you know.”

Clare threw an arm around his heaving shoulder, not so much to give him strength as to steal a bit of the steam pouring off his body. “Come on, oh-buddy-of-mine. We’ve got work to do. I stashed my larder with enough goodies to last you through another ice age.”

Bala loped along at her side, wiping a wisp of curly hair out of his eyes. “Oh great. Another ice age. You have a dark mind, lady.”

Clare shoved her frozen hands into huge, fluffy pockets, and they strode along the snowy sidewalk in silence. After a bit, she frowned and looked askance at Bala. “What’re you doing out here at the track, anyway?”

Bala shrugged one lopsided shoulder. “Working off a little steam.”

“Ha, ha!” Clare pummeled his left side down another notch. “So, tell me. How are we going to get Derik out of Governor Right’s prison and Justine out of Taug’s morgue?”

Bala glanced up at the first star twinkling in the sky and pointed. “Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish, I wish tonight.”

Clare stopped and joined in. “What’d you wish for?”

Bala hurried down the lonely sidewalk. “Can’t tell. It’d break the… whatchamacallit.”

Eyebrows rising, Clare laughed and bellowed frozen air in front of her face. “You’re superstitious?”

“Not at all. I just don’t want to lose my wish.”

“Seriously?”

Bala sighed and stopped. He tipped his head back and stared wide-eyed into the blue and lavender sky. “I believe in more than the eye can see.”

With easy dismissal, Clare waved him on. “So does everyone, I imagine. After all, we can’t see everything. There’s a lot we haven’t explored and don’t know.”

Bala shook his head. “Naw. That’s not what I mean.” He hurried across a silent street and looked over his shoulder. “I hope you left a light on. My shins are still healing.”

Twinkling windows illuminated the rural neighborhood. Clare huffed forward. “It’s automated, idiot. Like your house should be. First wrong tip-toe around my place and lights and alarms go off.”

Bala wrapped his quickly chilling arms around his lanky body and jogged ahead. “I got kids. Tip-toes are a security nightmare.”

~~~

Once ensconced in Clare’s largest and comfiest chair with a cup of hot cocoa in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other, Bala leaned back and grinned. “You do love me.”

Clare sat cross-legged on the couch with a mug of steaming tea. “What are we going to do? I’ve been formally ordered to stay out of all political messes and concentrate on cases with legitimate humans.”

“The boss knows about Derik?”

“Someone whispered enough in his ear to scare him witless. He told me to drop Derik’s case and forget I ever heard of Mrs. Hoggsworth.”

Bala whistled under his breath. “But we’ll need Justine’s help to free Derik, and she’s a legitimate human, sort of. And after all, an unfriendly alien is holding her by force.”

Clare shook her head. “I doubt she could be held by force… unless she thought she’d save Derik by offering herself up.”

A swarm of kittens clawed their way up the side of Bala’s chair. One nosed the plate of cookies near Bala’s hand.

Bala sipped his cocoa. “Governor Right can’t afford to leave evidence around that might bite her in the back someday.” He chomped a huge bite out of his cookie.

Clare wrapped her fingers around her mug and stared at the rising steam. “And Taug’s probably in hot water with the Crestar leadership. They hate looking like the bad guys. The veneer is everything to them.”

“I disagree. Science is their god. They’d sell their offspring for a crack at new technology. But given the Inter-Alien Alliance agreement, they’re caught between science and diplomacy. The question is: how do we convince Taug that he can have both?”

“We want to do that?”

“Sure, on condition he gives Justine her liberty.”

Clare’s eyebrows scrunched in indignation. “Taug is a lying, murderous cheat who’ll use anyone and everyone to further his own ends. And you want to offer him a way out?”

Bala leaned back and took another glorious sip of cocoa. “I said offer. I didn’t say deliver.”

~~~

All the snow had melted into rivulets of a late winter thaw. The sun shone mildly warmer, though it made no promises. The trees seemed to think that they had outlasted the worst of the season, and their branches thickened, the tips showing the tiniest swellings, hinting at future hopes.

Pedestrians plodded through the melting icy muck while those on autoskimmers raced above the mess, undaunted by nature’s challenges. Bala marched across the street and held the door of the nondescript office building open for Clare, who glanced around nervously.

When they reached the desired floor, Bala stood back and let Clare take the lead, though he covered her with his well-aimed Dustbuster. They entered Taug’s laboratory. Finding it empty, they both sighed.

Clare appeared to be dancing backward as she turned about the immaculate, white-walled room. Bala edged nearer the furthest glass wall, his gaze sweeping right and left in wide arcs. Finally, Clare unclenched her fingers around her own Dustbuster and let out a long breath. “I guess he isn’t here.” She shook her head. “Though from everything I gather, he isn’t anywhere else. I wonder—”

A sudden splash and a quick flash of tentacles swirling through the water forced a squeak from Bala. Clare clamped her hand over his, stopping him from blasting the wall to oblivion and drowning them in Crestonian fluids in the process.

Taug’s eyes peered at them through the murky green swirl.

Clare frowned at his sudden smile. It almost looked like he was glad to see them. He couldn’t be…could he?

Taug flashed out of sight.

Bala and Clare waited, their Dustbusters ready.

In a surprisingly short time, Taug’s bio-suit encased body waddled around the curved wall and into the central laboratory.

Bala was busy inspecting every container and had just lifted the lid on the dissecting tube. He paled and clutched his stomach. Wagging a shaky finger, Bala croaked. “What the—Who the heck do you have in there?”

Taug grinned mischievously. “No one you know.”

Bala raked his throat clear. “How do I know?”

“Hello.”

The familiar voice made Bala swing around.

Clare gasped.

Justine stepped forward, wringing her wet hair in a long towel. “I would’ve killed him if it was human—or any sentient being—for that matter.” She tossed a sinister smile at Taug.

Taug reflected the sentiment and opened his tentacles as if to embrace his long-lost family. “Come, let’s make the most of this opportunity. It’s not often that we gather without the express intention of killing one another.” He gestured to an alcove off to the side populated with padded chairs, a sofa, and a couple of ornate tables.

Bala’s eyebrows rose. “I had no idea that Crestas had a taste for comfortable furnishings.”

Taug lumbered ahead and plopped down with a sigh on a cushy sofa. “After living in water, you don’t think we’d prefer your hard, unrelenting wood and steel? No, there is much you do not understand about us. We are not as barbaric as you think. Your prejudice blinds you to our better qualities.”

Clare huffed. “Honestly, it’s your war crimes that blind me. But let’s not get off-topic.” She folded her arms across her chest.

Bala leaned against one of the empty chairs, his eyes roving over to Justine, who seated herself across from Taug as if they were having an intimate moment together. Bala shook his head. “Okay, Justine, what’s going on? You’ve become best buddies with your lover’s would-be killer?”

Justine combed out strands of her wet hair with her long, slender fingers. “You do rush to rash judgments, don’t you?”

Clare opened her hands beseechingly. “We came to rescue you!”

Justine flicked her hair over her shoulder and glanced at Taug before turning her full gaze on Clare. “Silly of you. I hardly need to be rescued. Thanks, anyway.” Justine rose, towered over Clare a moment, then moved past her and strolled around the small space. “Remember in my apartment, when you apologized for being a judgmental idiot?”

Clare stiffened, only her eyes glowering.

“And you simpered all over my cat?”

As she flushed, Clare lowered her gaze.

Justine stopped in front of Clare and held up her hand to forestall any possible interruption. “I knew then that I had misjudged you.” Justine stepped into Clare’s personal space. “I couldn’t embrace my human DNA, but I couldn’t ignore it either.” She tapped Clare’s shoulder. “When you humbled yourself before me, you brought me the first real joy I’ve ever felt.”

Clare turned away. “Happy to be of service.” Her irony bounced off Justine like water off Taug’s glass wall.

Justine’s eyed followed Clare’s pacing form. “It’s all about choice, you see. My creator never gave me an option. I was caught between worlds. No human could really love an android, and technology has no heart to offer.”

Bala slapped the back of the chair, startling Taug. “That’s not true! Derik loves you. He offered his life to save you.”

Justine shook her head. “Merely sentiment. He loves the idea of me.”

Taug’s eyes ping-ponged back and forth between the speakers.

Bala clapped his hands together in impotent fury. “If sacrificing yourself for another isn’t love, then I don’t know what is.”

“Sharing yourself completely. Something I can never truly do.”

Clare lifted her hands in apparent surrender. “I’m lost. How did I help?”

“You humbled yourself. You even hugged my cat!”

Clare glared at Justine. “Okay, fine. Fairtrade. You come over and hug my cat sometimes, and we’ll be even. You’ll be as humble as me.”

Taug grunted at Clare, a tentacle waving in admonishment. “You’re a stupid woman.” He heaved himself to his feet. “Justine is humble enough.” He glanced at Justine. “She was never a child and can never have children. A vital part of the human experience—lost to her.”

Justine smirked. “But not so vital.” She glared at Clare. “I don’t need to be a child, a mother, or even in love to experience humanity. You humbled yourself for a cat.” She turned on her heel. “I was never so glad to be an android in all my life.”

Bala stood back and gripped his Dustbuster as he glared at Justine. “So you’ve sided with Taug—against us?”

Justine laughed as she pounded to the doorway and turned on the threshold. “I’m not against you. Just not one of you. I don’t need you anymore. Taug’s helped me understand that my uniqueness is my greatest asset. He’s sent a message to his superior; I’ll be returning with him.”

Clare’s eyes widened. “To Crestar? You’re crazy. They’ll dissect you!”

Bala waved his Dustbuster at Taug. “Right after they kill him.”

Taug chuckled. “They won’t kill a hero bringing home their salvation.”

“Emotion without reason lets people walk all over you; reason without emotion is a mask for cruelty.” ~Nalini Singh

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty Part II

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

“Max?” Someone tapped his shoulder.

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

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

Max had not moved a millimeter.

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

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

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

“Coffee?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cerulean fiddled with the saltcellar. “Still am.”

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

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

“Is this a test?”

Cerulean sighed.

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

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

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

Max glanced at Cerulean.

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

Max stared at Cerulean, unblinking.

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

Coffee sprayed across the table as Cerulean choked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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The Wheel or the Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, are we going out or what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cindy sucked in a fresh breath of oxygen.

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

A heart-stopping moment. Did she have molasses?

“Are you even listening?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to clean up.

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

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

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

Cindy tossed a drying towel to her friend.

Jan caught it handily.

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

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

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

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

Kelly sniffed. “What’s cooking?”

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

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twelve

So Small on the Inside

The Newearth Museum of Human History was still under construction and probably always would be. It was five stories high and delved three stories into the ground, making a total of eight floors. Since it was built directly over the site of an Oldearth museum and had transported a significant number of artifacts from other ancient sites around the planet, it was the greatest collection of Oldearth history anywhere in the universe.

Justine stood in the enormous entrance hall, a reconstructed prehistoric cave-dwelling, and soon became absorbed in analyzing the primitive wall paintings.

“Hey, Justine! Here you are. I was looking all over.” Derik trotted to her side and stared up at the beautiful figures of ancient animals. “Yeah, my Dad liked these too. He said that the cave dwellers weren’t nearly so primitive as we like to think. They just had underdeveloped superiority—something like that.” He nudged Justine in the ribs with a grin.

Justine grinned back automatically and linked arms with her date. They strolled through the cave into further timelines denoting major ages of human development. “I like it here. It reminds me of something I can’t quite remember.”

Moving toward a life-size diorama of a medieval castle with a moat, drawbridge, keep, and battlements, Derik grinned. “Now this is where I’d like to live. Right here.” He pointed to the center of the castle where a cutout portion exposed the main hall replete with roasting venison and long, trestle tables lined with warriors enjoying a feast. The lord of the manor wore a circlet of gold and a warm smile as he lifted a goblet in a feudal salute.

Justine’s fixed smile faded as she tilted her head, first one way, then another, considering the diorama. “I don’t see any of the women smiling. Why?”

Derik shrugged.

Strolling forward, Justine stopped at the thick doors of an ancient abbey. A life-sized chapel stood to the side. Justine circled around and entered the small church arranged with wooden benches, kneelers, a confessional, and an altar at the front. Flames on wax candles wavered in the breeze she carried into the still space. A veiled figure rose, bowed toward the altar, turned, and passed them with a gentle smile and a nod.

Derik stepped aside as she passed, tucking his hands under his armpits. “It’s cold in here.”

Justine padded to the altar, caressed the cream-colored stone, and paused, her gaze fixed on the crucifix hanging above the door. “This place is alive.”

Derik shook his head. “Probably just paid actors.”

Justine gazed around the room, inhaling a deep breath. Crossing in front of a diminutive statue, she caressed the metallic face of a young woman holding a sword. Justine swallowed, blinking back a sudden, unfathomable emotion. She strolled toward the stained-glass windows, lifting her hand as if to trace the detailed pattern of colored glass. “I could live here.” Traipsing over to a side panel tucked in a recess, she tapped the “Explore” button.

A black-robed figure, who appeared to have stepped out of an Oldearth monastery, began to speak. “Welcome to St. Joan of Arc’s Chapel, originally situated in the village of Chasse in the Rhone Valley, France…”

Derik tapped his foot.

Justine stared at his foot, pressed the end button, and stopped the exploration. “Another time, then.”

Derik hugged her arm and led her toward new adventures. “There’s so much to see here. We’ll have to come again. But I really want to show you my favorite place—the dinosaur exhibit. You like dinosaurs?” Without waiting for an answer Derik pulled Justine tighter and leaned in close. “I don’t care what I see, as long as I’m with you. It’s so wonderful to—”

Justine kissed Derik, causing more than a few pairs of eyes to turn in their direction. Releasing him with a playful shove, she turned and started down the exhibit hall, pointing to a sign: “Dinosaurs: Their Rise and Demise.” She grinned.

~~~

Dressed in a form-fitting sweater, long pants, and stylish boots, Justine traipsed up the dirt path to Cerulean’s cabin. Near the top, she stopped and gazed over the great, bluish-green lake. Foaming whitecaps furiously slammed against the ice-encased coast. The green, pine-forested vista fell away behind her. She sighed, her white breath blown into the breeze, and marched the final steps to Cerulean’s cabin. A quick tread behind made her stop. She cocked her head and peered around with a furrowed brow.

From the distance, Clare called. “Hey, Cerulean, wait up a sec—”

Justine stood her ground, her bare fists on her hips.

Well bundled in a white, fluffy winter coat, thick pants, and a red tasseled hat, Clare rushed forward with her head down, fighting the cold wind. She pummeled into the silent figure like a ball bouncing off a wall. Her head jerked up, her wide eyes, startled. “Oh, you. I thought Cerulean—”

Justine’s eyes narrowed. “Seems we’re both looking for him.”

Clare stepped back on the path, wiping her pink, frozen nose with the back of her gloved hand. “Yeah, well. I need to talk to him about something important.”

Clare rolled her eyes. “What could be so important to a robot?”

“Me too.”

Justine stomped a large, menacing step forward. “I’m getting tired of your attitude. I’ve known Cerulean far longer than you.”

Clutching the ends of her coat sleeves, Clare sneered. “What? Since your prison days?” She practically danced like a squirrel taunting a wolf. “Please tell me that you’re reformed and hope to start a new life—” She underestimated Justine’s reach.

Grabbing Clare by her jacket-front, Justine pulled her close, glaring directly into her eyes. “I could crush you.”

Pretending that she was not trembling, Clare clipped her words. “How. Like. A. Robot.”

Justine dropped Clare, brushed passed, and strode a few steps down the path.

Clare called. “I know you’re a hired gun and that you have a connection with Governor Jane Right. I also suspect that you tried to kill my partner, Bala, when he got too close to the truth.” Clare crossed her padded arms high over her chest, her tone just as high and mighty. “You wouldn’t mind replacing all of humanity with machines, would you?”

Justine spun around and spat out her words. “Your jealousy blinds you. I thought humans knew how to separate fact from fiction, but apparently, that is another art you have yet to master.”

A flame rose in Clare’s cheeks. She stomped up the porch steps and then turned and peered disdainfully down at Justine. “Jealousy? I have nothing to be jealous—”

Justine jabbed a finger in the air. “You have feelings for Derik and Cerulean, but you can’t have either. Derik is more man than you can handle. Cerulean merely pities you.”

“You wretched—”

Justine waved her off as she turned. “Don’t be so easily insulted. It’s not your fault that you’re born weak. The fact that you even try to protect humanity is rather remarkable, pathetic but—”

“When I get enough evidence to tie you to that nefarious Cresta or Governor Right, I’m going to shut you down—or recycle your machinery—whatever they do with useless robots!”

Justine shook her head as she snapped branches out of her way. “Go ahead and try. But you’ll have to get in line.” Justine disappeared out of sight.

Clare stood on the porch, staring after her, blinking back tears of rage.

~~~

Governor Right tapped her fingers together pyramid style. The shadow towered above her, but she held her pose unperturbed. She had dealt with this kind before. They always make themselves appear big because they’re so small on the inside. “So you need my help, is that it?”

The ultra-luxurious office signaled her importance to the beings of Newearth. A vast majority of citizens had voted her into office, though she owned a great number of the voting machines, while the humans who managed them owed her. Sitting at her artistically fashioned desk with an inlaid marble top and hardwood legs carved into snakes and other beasts of the jungle, she waited patiently. She had all the time in the world. Well, until her next appointment. A quick glance at her desktop datapad informed her that she had room for negotiating.

The shadowed figure pronounced each word distinctly. “Like you, I wish to rewrite history. But unlike you, my history will reveal the truth.”

The governor tapped her fingers, bored. “I suppose you believe that. It always helps to believe our own lies.” The disembodied chuckle surprised Governor Right. She didn’t know any other thugs with a sense of humor.

“I don’t need to lie. Besides, I have friends, very powerful friends who agree that my service is invaluable.”

“Oh, we’re all invaluable, certainly. And what, pray tell, is my invaluable service going to include?”

The shadow glided to a dim corner as if to distance itself from the message it had to convey. “Certain associates have been experimenting with a new drug, which could assist several races in their district; their biology is similar to humans. Naturally, they want to test their product first, without repercussions.”

“Naturally.” The governor knew it was stupid to ask, but her curiosity was piqued, and she never liked nebulous details. “So why don’t you just pay for volunteers?”

“That would cost a great deal and take time. Besides, humans become unreasonable if something goes wrong. They tend to ban all further testing if too many subjects die.”

The governor waved her hand eloquently. “Your associates, on the other hand—”

The visitor’s dead tone snapped. “Could spend the entire human race and not blink an eye.”

Governor Right stiffened. “Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” She tapped her ample bosom. “I have some sensibilities, don’t you know.”

The shadow loomed closer. “You’ll be well paid. And there is the matter of history…”

Rising, the governor shifted her large body and passed the mysterious figure. “You care about human history?”

“I find it fascinating, as do many on the Inter-Alien Committee. They have a fondness for accurate records.”

Governor Right grinned as she poured herself an amber drink, never even considering a polite offer to her guest. “Ah, yes, a fondness. I have a fondness for units, don’t you know?”

The figure floated near. “Would an extra million make you happy?”

“Delighted, would be more accurate.” The governor saluted her guest with the drink-holding hand.

The figure retreated to the door, but Governor Right waggled a bejeweled finger in the air. “Just a thought, before you go to wherever it is shadows descend—Bala.”

The shadow twisted. “Bala?”

“You know who I am talking about.”

“I would like to know more, though—”

“Please, don’t tell me that his innocent heart touches your spirit or some such drivel. After all, I don’t believe you have a heart, and I doubt anything could quench your spirit.”

The shadow grew, engulfing Jane Right in complete blackness. A strangled cry pierced the air.

The shadow receded.

Governor Right staggered. Her amber drink spilled across the smooth, tiled floor, the glass rolled out of sight. She grabbed the corner of her desk and leaned heavily against it. For several moments, she breathed, in, out, trying to steady herself, shaking off a blackout. With stiff-willed control, she raised her head and stared at the shadowed figure. “You shouldn’t have been able—I don’t believe in devils.” Reassembling her shattered dignity, the governor squared her shoulders. “You can go. I have no other questions.”

“Neither do I.”

The shadow quivered. “And Bala?”

Governor Right waved her hand weakly. “Forget it.”

“I would like to leave him intact. I enjoy studying him, but I had to teach him manners.”

A feeble nod assented. “If anyone could.”

The shadow loomed closer. “Married men with children are easy to tame.”

Governor Right chose another glass from her cabinet.

“Lucky for me—”

The shadow rose, darkening the glorious office into the premature night. “Women who want to live are equally easy to tame.”

Jane Right’s hand froze. She bowed her head. “I’m rather ashamed.”

“You should be. There is a reason I never bothered to study you.”

Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult ~Anne Rice

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Ten

Mixing More Than Metaphors

Justine stood in front of a large female chimpanzee and stared into its black eyes. A wall of windows separated them. Unimpressed, the monkey sat slumped in a corner, occasionally yanking on a chain suspended from a tall branch. A baby chimpanzee scampered about in the background.

Justine’s gaze shifted to the baby. The mother’s eyes shifted in accord. The baby trotted over, lurching between two legs and four. It stopped when it saw Justine and then scurried up its mother’s arm, chattering and clinging to her. The mother glared at Justine.

Justine slowly lifted her hands and placed them, palms up, in full view. She lowered her head, letting her gaze drop to the ground.

The mother twitched and swung her baby high onto her other hip. With one last glare, she tipped her nose into the air and swung up into the nearest tree. The chain jangled as she flew by.

“Interesting creatures, aren’t they?”

Justine swiveled and faced Cerulean, her look of concentration morphing into a twisted grin. “Yes, I feel strangely at home here. In a cage that pretends it isn’t a cage.”

Cerulean offered his arm as he glanced toward the door.

“I’m glad to see you again. I’ve thought of you often.”

As Justine took his arm, her grin faded. “I can’t say the same since I only awoke a few weeks ago. But I’m glad to see you now.”

Cerulean patted her arm as he directed her toward a butterfly garden. “Well, tell me about your awakening. Who rescued you and why?”

Justine strolled to a quiet corner and perched on a bench stationed against a life-like diorama of prehistoric insects. “I can’t betray professional secrets, you understand. Suffice to say, my mind is intact, and I have learned from my previous experiences.”

“So you aren’t planning on repeating—”

“I have no certain plans at the moment.”

“And Derik?”

“Ah, yes, I was wondering when you’d ask.” Justine uncrossed her legs and rubbed her hands together. “It’s a little chilly in here. Do you mind if we walk out into the sun?”

Cerulean’s brows furrowed as his eyes darted around the tropical setting, but he merely offered his hand. They strolled out of the exotic building and into the sunlight that shone on every visible food station and playground. Children swung from ropes and vines in a jungle gym not far from where the monkeys gamboled in their own sport.

Justine stopped and pointed. “They are not so different, human children and monkeys.”

“Except the monkeys are in cages and the humans are free.”

Justine peered at Cerulean. “Depends on how you define the word free.”

“Not being locked in.”

Justine sniffed her approval. “Yes, there is that.” She strolled over to a popcorn stand and ordered a bag. Upon obtaining her prize, she meandered back to Cerulean, nibbling each kernel like a squirrel working on a nut. She passed the bag over.

Cerulean took a handful and chewed meditatively. “So are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“Why should I? Can’t a robot have a personal life?”

Cerulean stared into her eyes, his voice softened to just above a whisper. “Justine.”

Refusing his intimate gaze, Justine glanced away and started toward a herd of lumbering elephants set beyond a wide cavern. “I don’t want to remember. I just want to start over.”

Cerulean sighed as he kept pace. “Sounds like a wonderful idea. But to do that, you have to be free. Are you?”

Justine gripped the guardrail before the cavern and leaned over the wide abyss. Black streams of hair curtained her face.

With a gentle touch, Cerulean tipped her chin up so that their eyes met. “Who awoke you?”

“A Cresta named Taug.”

Cerulean’s hand dropped to his side. He shook his head at the elephants. “Damn.”

“He’s not so bad. He told me more than he should’ve. It seems that every biological creature thinks that robots have no moral code.”

“You’re not a robot.”

“I am—to Taug.”

“Not to me. You know that.”

Justine leaned in, her lips only centimeters from Cerulean’s.

“Derik thinks I am real.”

“Derik cares about you.”

“Will that make me real?”

“To him? Or to you?” Cerulean raked shaky fingers through his hair. “Listen, Justine, you have nothing to prove. I care about you, too. You’re a desirable woman who happens to live in a mechanical body. I could kill the mind who decided to put your being into a killing machine, but that wouldn’t help, would it? You have to decide who you are.”

Justine reached over, her fingers searching, and placed her hand in his. Her gaze turned to a group of children tagging behind their mother. “You’ll help me?”

Cerulean wrapped his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. “If you let me.”

~~~

The orange harvest moon glowed big and round through the lace-curtained windows as Bala slouched in the back booth of the Breakfast Nook, reviewing his datapad. The Breakfast Nook belied its name since it served meals from early morning to late at night and offered everything from human breakfast fare to Uanyi appetizers.

The original human owner planned a country diner serving humans with a hunger for rural Oldearth, but as Newearth’s population changed to reflect more diverse inhabitants—few of whom hungered for anything reminiscent of Oldearth—he soon found himself unable to pay the bills.

Riko sauntered in one morning, saw possibilities, and saved the day—or at least the restaurant. The original human, Mr. Gilbert, long since disabled by old age, still received a healthy percentage of the profits and a certain level of Riko’s unpredictable generosity in free meals whenever he managed to hobble into town. He always nodded approvingly that the lace curtains and Oldearth décor had remained intact even if the menu had drastically changed. Riko always shrugged the old man’s gratitude away. Customers came for the food. It could look like the inside of a Bhuac cave for all he cared. As long as everyone paid in proper Newearth units.

At present, the diner was deserted except for a gangly human teen wiping down the last of the tables. After whistling a free-flowing Bhuac hymn, he slapped the counter with his towel and nodded his approval. He waved a cheerful goodnight to Bala as he passed into the backroom.

Bala grinned and returned a salute.

The door chime tinkled and a poorly attired, slump-shouldered Uanyi shuffled in, his eyes searching the environment.

Bala stood and squared his shoulders.

It was getting late, and Riko had told him he’d wait for his guest to leave before closing up. “But if you could hurry things along—I’ve got my own affairs to tend to, see?”

Bala tried not to cringe at the approaching spectacle. He considered few aliens beautiful and this specimen of Uanyi maleness slouching toward him left him in a cold sweat. Riko was the only Uanyi he’d ever felt comfortable around and even then, he had little desire to get on Riko’s bad side. Bala tried on a smile, stared at the huge, bulbous eyes and the hissing breathing helm, and decided a cold frown might be more appropriate. “Zero, I assume?”

“Idiot, I assume? Don’t use no names.”

Bala sat down as the Uanyi slid into place. The alien’s sibilant hissing made Bala’s nose wrinkle. “Yeah, right. I just—”

A meaty palm slapped the table. “Get on with it. Don’t got all night.”

Bala considered asking Zero if he learned English at Bothmal. But he refrained. “Yes, well, I need to ask you some important questions, and I expect honest answers. I work for the—”

The meaty palm was at it again, slapping the table. “You brought my stuff?”

Bala ran his fingers through his disheveled hair. “Yes, but I’m not about to give you anything until you tell me what I need to know.”

“Huh! Human, you brute.” Apparently, even Uanyi thugs liked to apply understated sarcasm.

Bala squared his shoulders and spoke through clenched teeth. “You haven’t seen anything—”

“Four hundred.”

A puzzled frown crossed Bala’s face. “Excuse—?”

“You waste my time. I make you pay extra.”

“The deal was three hundred, and I’m not about to—”

Zero moved faster than Bala had thought possible. Lurching across the table, he pulled Bala up close and personal, Bala’s small, black eyes nearly touching the Uanyi’s enormous, bulging orbs. “Do what I say—”

To Bala’s utter relief and eternal gratitude, Riko suddenly gripped Zero by the back of his rubbery neck. His large, bulging arms flexed till they seemed like they would burst either his immaculate white shirtsleeves or Zero’s neck.

Zero released Bala as he tried to pry himself free from Riko’s grip.

Riko squeezed harder. “A deal is a deal, trash, now tell the man what he wants to know.”

Bala stared at Riko, a delighted smile tugging at his lips.

Zero squirmed like a fish out of water, but Riko reached over and grabbed Zero’s breather helm, hissing something in Uanyi, which did not sound one bit nice by Bala’s estimation.

Riko blinked his huge eyes with a deadpanned expression, his head tilted toward Bala. “What’d ya want to know?”

Amazed at his piece of unprecedented good fortune, Bala jumped in. “Right, yes! I want to know who killed Carol Hoggsworth.” He dragged his charmed smile off Riko and replaced it with his formal interrogation glare, one he had practiced in the mirror at home until Kendra told him to stop. “I know the murderer was part of a Uanyi gang, and I suspect he was one of your—”

Zero’s breathing grew ragged as he struggled to get his words out. “Cho. His. Name. Was. Cho.” Riko loosened his grip and Zero sucked in a shuddering breath. “But you can’t have him. Someone else got him. Last week.”

Riko dropped Zero back into the booth and released his breather helm. “See, that wasn’t so hard. Next time, be quicker, and you’ll find things go easier.” Riko raised an eyebrow at Bala, tapping his foot.

Bala straightened and dug into his pocket. “Oh, yes!” He pulled out a small computer chip and slid it across to Zero. “Three hundred, just as we agreed. Thank you.” He leaned in, folding his hands as if they were buddies having a friendly chat. “Now, would you happen to know about someone named Jane Right?”

“Never heard of her.” Zero rubbed his swollen neck.

“How about Justine?”

“Listen, you only paid for one—”

Riko slapped Zero across the head with the back of his rubbery hand. “If you don’t want my prints all over your body, you better get generous real quick.”

Zero glared at Riko but kept his seat. “Justine? Yeah, heard of it. Big gun, they say. Someone let it out of the freezer. It’s on the loose. If you got Justine working for you… maybe we can make a new deal.”

Bala pursed his lips into a silent whistle and shook his head, darting a glance at Riko.

Riko gripped Zero by the neck again, lifting him to his feet. “Closing time.”

Zero glared at Riko and ambled to the door, tossing back a parting insult. “Humani.”

Exhaling a long sigh, Bala stood and watched Zero lurch over the threshold.

Riko called out after the retreating figure. “Your mother’d be ashamed. Wash up before going home; you smell like a sewer.”

The door chime clanged as the door slammed.

Bala turned to Riko. A handshake wasn’t an option. “Mother?”

Riko shrugged. “My sister’s youngest. Drugs, experiments, idiot stuff. Nothing but heartbreak.”

Bala shook his head, his hands flapping at his side. “I don’t know how to thank you. Really, I don’t have the resources to bargain well. I’ll tell Clare—”

“Forget it. I didn’t do it for you…particularly. It was just something that needed to be done. The right thing. You know.” Bala swallowed. He did know. He was just surprised that Riko knew.

~~~

Dry winds rustled across the harvested fields on the outskirts of Waukee. Weak rays of sunlight spread out like a heavenly fan, making a brave pretense of warming the land.

As he strode along, Cerulean attempted to soak in the Newearth scent, but he shivered. He felt weak and washed out, like paints with too much water added. He had never felt like this before. Luxonians didn’t ordinarily get sick. The illness that had nearly decimated the female population a century before had been easy to fix, once they knew what was wrong. Similar to the effect penicillin had on human illness in Oldearth history. Patting his arms, Cerulean considered the possibilities. He could simply be exhausted. Or he might have picked up some foreign illness during his work among aliens. Perhaps he had attempted to maintain his human form for too long. Or maybe…he was dying.

He sniffed again, worried. But with some relief, he realized that there was nothing to smell. All living organisms had hidden themselves deep in the soil or slept in organic repose. A picture appeared in his mind: snow swirling from a white sky as he guarded Anne’s sleeping form on a long winter night. So long ago. A searing pain shot through his chest. A human body told his Luxonian mind things he didn’t want to know.

Justine, apparently indifferent to the stark beauty of a Newearth winter, swayed easily at his side, moving as naturally as any woman he’d ever seen. His gaze flickered over her. She could never be Anne or Clare, yet she was refreshingly desirable, something he couldn’t explain to himself. Her body was a biomechanical hybrid created by a race that remained utterly mysterious and ominously dangerous.

Justine stopped and tapped Cerulean’s arm. Her brow furrowed as one hand rested akimbo against her hip. “Before we get there, I want you to tell me the truth.”

Cerulean closed his eyes so as not to roll them in exasperation. He had just spent a couple hours with Bala and his family; the eye roll was becoming second nature. “As I pointed out earlier, Clare is investigating Derik’s case, and I think she could benefit from your…wisdom.”

Justine’s penetrating stare surveyed his face, searchlights looking for any hint of a lie. “What am I going to get in exchange?”

“A friend.”

“Do I need another friend?”

“No one has too many friends.”

Justine’s gaze fixed onto Cerulean’s, unabashedly, hauntingly.

Cerulean’s heart thudded against his ribs. He rubbed his temple and flicked a glance across the street at the transport station. A Bhuac wearily climbed the steps. He knew how he felt.

“Listen, Justine, I can’t help Clare help Derik without your help… if that makes any sense. People do better when they work together. Everyone sees a different part of the picture, and we’ll put the puzzle together piece by piece.”

Justine’s chin jutted forward. “I believe you just mixed your metaphors.”

Cerulean stalked forth again, his hands clenched. “Oh, hell, I’m mixing more than metaphors!”

Justine’s long skirt rippled in the winter breeze, outlining the perfect shape of her legs.

After another long block and across a quiet street, Cerulean led Justine to Clare’s porch. Vibrations of Mozart’s Ninth Symphony poured forth from the neighbor’s house. Cerulean appraised Justine with a quick breath. “Just act natural. Be yourself. You’re here as my friend, and you want to help. That’s all that Clare needs to know. Really.”

Justine squared her shoulders. “I don’t want to help her. I want to help you.”

“Same thing.” Cerulean pressed the doorbell. Nothing. He knocked. Nothing. He rapped his knuckles loudly on the doorframe. Nothing.

Justine tilted her head, appraising the structure before her. “Let me.” She gripped the doorframe and shook it till the whole house rattled.

Cerulean’s shoulders slumped.

The door swung open. Clare’s wide-eyed expression nearly engulfed her face as she peered out the door. “What the—?”

Her gaze flew to Cerulean and then swept over the tall, shapely, well-dressed woman in front of her.

Cerulean leaped into the breach. “Hi, Clare. I thought you were expecting us?”

“Tomorrow.”

“No…today.”

Clare looked from Cerulean to Justine.

Justine mouthed the syllables, “To-day” without uttering a sound.

Clare stared down at her stained sweatshirt, baggy pants, and fluffy slipper-clad feet and stepped aside, her folded arms pressed against her chest. “Well, in any case, it’s nice to see you. Welcome to my humble abode.” Clare smothered her grimace with a tight smile.

Cerulean marched in. Justine swayed in. Clare stumbled up behind.

Reviewing the assortment of artifacts on the shelves, new paintings on the walls, and a speckled Cresta fern in the corner, Cerulean offered a low whistle of approval. “You’ve been delving into the world of alien art and culture?”

Her arms cemented to her chest, Clare glowered a low glance at Justine. “Yeah? So? I decided to try and understand the Cresta mindset a bit better. That so bad?”

Cerulean turned and frowned. “No, not bad. Just not something I’d expect from you.”

Hustling to the center of the room, her stance wide, ready for a fight, except for the fact that her hands were still stuffed under her arms across her chest, Clare huffed. “Why not from me?”

“Well, for one, you’ve never shown any appreciation of art before, and two, you have no great love for Crestas.”

With a dramatic unfolding and accompanied fling of her freed arm, Clare gestured to the room as if giving testimony. “Can’t you see? I’m growing—okay?”

Justine sauntered over to a half-finished clay statue on a pottery wheel, listing precariously to one side. She peered at it critically. “How primitive.” She batted her innocent eyes at Cerulean. “You never told me Clare had children.”

Clare’s jaw jutted out as she blew air between her teeth. “No, that’s mine. I know it’s not very good, but I’m just learning. Kendra calls it art therapy.”

Justine’s brows furrowed in concern, still focused on Cerulean as if Clare were deaf as well as blind. “You didn’t tell me that she was impaired.”

Clare stomped her slippered foot, the fluffy ends wafting in the sudden breeze. “Cerulean!”

With a shake of his head, Cerulean lifted his hands. “Stop, you two! We’re here to help Derik. Remember?”

A crimson blush spreading over her cheeks, Clare tossed a bag over the statue. “Thanks, but I’m the official detective on his case, and I’ve decided that I don’t need your help.” She turned back to Cerulean. “I know you mean well, but I work best alone.”

“What about Bala?”

“I have him on another case. Besides, I need to keep my professional life separate. I shouldn’t have told you my troubles. You’re a great person—Luxonian, I mean—but you can’t possibly understand.”

Cerulean clasped his hands and bowed slightly. “I defer to your superior wisdom. But the truth is, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Justine is more involved than you realize, and I don’t think you can help Derik without hearing what she has to say.”

Clare’s expression frosted as her voice grew icy. “I don’t need help from an ex-convict. I’m dealing with a crime against humanity by a Cresta, and no robot—no matter how well… endowed—is going to be able to help me. It’s going to take every bit of my training to—”

The front door slammed in the wake of Justine’s departure.

Cerulean exhaled a long, weary breath and raked his fingers through his hair. “Good job, Detective. You just made an enemy of Taug’s hired gun.”

“Even God doesn’t propose to judge a man till his last days, why should you and I?” ~Dale Carnegie

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Nine

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

Bala leaned over the professor’s ornate, Oldearth-styled desk and pounded his fist. “Stop lying!”

Professor Baltimore, a connoisseur of ancient civilizations with a decided bent toward OldEurope, was dressed in a tweed jacket, a white collared shirt, and black slacks. Since he was spindly, pallid, and had a voice that shrieking birds might covet, apparel and atmosphere would have to suffice for intimidation purposes. He sat back and pursed his lips in a petulant sneer. “Don’t try to frighten me.”

“I wouldn’t have to if you would stop playing games. We both know that you had an argument with Mrs. Hoggsworth the night before she died, and we both know that it had something to do with the paper you assigned—”

“To blazes with you!” Stretching every millimeter of his skinny frame, the professor shot to his feet. “That woman could argue a Cresta to the Divide and back! She liked to argue. She just happened to pick me to argue with that fateful day because her son, Timmy the Terror, complained that I was unfair. So like the youth of today. They’re always complaining! If you really want to know who killed her, you might try asking that miserable wretch of a husband of hers. Poor man, tied to that volcano. There are probably hundreds who’d love to carry her casket to burial, just to be sure that she’s in the ground, never to raise her voice again.”

Bala straightened and chuckled. “You’re rather good at this.”

Professor Baltimore glared through his ultra-fashionable, Oldearth wire-framed spectacles. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“You maneuvered the argument away from your lies and onto Mrs. Hoggsworth’s personality. Very neatly done. I can see why the students fear you.”

Professor Baltimore smirked as he swaggered around his desk. “Flattery won’t get you anywhere.”

Bala paced over to the classroom chalkboard. “You still use one of these? Why not a holo-screen?”

“This is a history class. I like to bring the past to life. Besides, holo-screens don’t have the same effect when you run your fingernails across them.”

Bala nodded. He picked up a piece of chalk and started writing awkwardly. His body blocked the professor’s view. “Wow, I haven’t done anything like this since Sister Mary-Origen took us to an Oldearth exhibit and let us play with the replicas.”

In silent retaliation, the professor inched his way around the table, shuffling a few papers as he did so. His glance darted to the chalkboard. He lunged for the eraser, but Bala was faster.

“Tut, tut, professor! Don’t be in such a rush to erase my masterpiece. I never get a chance to create art, at least not with chalk.”

Professor Baltimore cocked an ear to the quiet hallway, then rushed to the door and shut it with a sharp click. He strode back to the front of the room and snapped out his hand.

Bala held the eraser aloft. “First tell me what you don’t like about my work. After all, I might learn something. You’re a smart man with many years of education. In fact, how old are you?”

“That is none of your business. Now erase what’s on that board or—”

“What? Granted, you might be a few milligrams heavier than me, but I’m faster and if it comes to that, I can outrun you the livelong day. Now, tell me—” Bala turned to the chalkboard where he had scrawled, “Governor Jane Right is….” in huge letters. “—what’s so wrong with my work?”

“You think you’re clever, but you have no idea who you are playing with.” Professor Baltimore stroked his beard. “You’re like the students, children really, who come in here day after day, thinking they’re ready for the knowledge that I can impart, but they have no idea of the responsibility involved. Studying history is very much like absorbing an attribute of God.”

Bala clapped his chalky hands dramatically. “So, as you play God, do you help out a few illustrious friends and write new histories, new family trees, impale the past with your chosen glory?”

The professor’s eyes lit up, blinking in watery admiration. “Lord, that’s a good line! I think I’ll steal it.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Perhaps not. But that is quite beyond your scope of understanding.” The professor returned to his desk and tapped on the computer console embedded on the surface. “You’re a detective, and you want to find a murderer. Fine. I will tell you everything I know about Mrs. Hoggsworth’s death.”

Professor Baltimore darted around the desk, snatched the eraser, and began brushing away the offending words as he spoke. “She came in here, shrieked at me in an incomprehensible rage for twenty minutes, and then stalked out into a dark and dangerous city.” His glare darted over his shoulder at Bala. “Likely as not, she screamed at some poor unfortunate thug who happened to be on his humble way to pillage or burn the nearest town.” He slapped down the eraser, raising a cloud of dust. “In any case, she annoyed someone who followed her home, blew a hole through her middle, and walked away undoubtedly feeling quite refreshed by the experience.”

Stroking his chin, Bala considered the possibilities. “So, I am looking for a petty thief?”

“Someone for hire, most likely.”

“And my artwork?”

Professor Baltimore appraised the blurry smear on the board. “There was nothing there.”

As Bala opened his mouth, a bell clanged and hundreds of hurrying footsteps flooded the hall.

Professor Baltimore smiled serenely. “Ah, saved by the clang.”

~~~

The Hoggsworth house was old, for Newearth that is, and exuded the dignified charm of a well-kept manor. It was situated on a comfortable corner lot in an upper-class, tranquil neighborhood inhabited by professional families who lived well and undoubtedly expected to die that way. They were a rare community of open-minded beings who mixed freely with others of their elevated social status. Crestas with advanced degrees and Ingots in government positions, especially diplomacy and political affairs, were accepted by the human inhabitants and in turn tolerated the Bhuacs and Uanyi hired for their discreet services in the area of child care and domestic duties.

In the somnolent living room, Bala stood awkwardly, first on one foot and then shifting to the other. He folded his hands and tossed a beseeching look heavenward. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I just hoped—”

“You hoped what? That you’d solve my wife’s murder by asking for details that tear me up inside? Frankly, I don’t give a damn anymore. It could’ve been a Cresta, a mindless Uanyi, or one of Baltimore’s students hoping for extra points. Nothing is going to bring Carol back. God, can’t we let it go?”

Bala flicked his gaze to the ceiling again, asking for guidance from an unseen source. “Look, someone killed your wife, and it’s in humanity’s best interest if we find out who. Otherwise—”

Mr. Hoggsworth slumped deeper into his overstuffed chair. “Oh hell. I’m not usually so selfish. But it’s been a trying week.”

Bala knelt and laid his hand on the gentleman’s arm. “I am sorry about your loss. I love my wife too, and if something happened to her, I’d go crazy. But Carol Hoggsworth deserves justice, and she can’t be at peace with her murderer running free.”

Mr. Hoggsworth’s eyes filled with tears. “I had to send Tim off to my sister’s place up north. He nearly lost his mind—plots of revenge. Look, you’re a decent fellow, Mr.—”

“Just Bala. My last name is a tongue twister. I had to spell it three times before the registrar would sign my birth certificate.”

A snort wrestled a grin free from Mr. Hoggsworth’s grief. He took a deep breath and sat up straighter. “To begin with, I think you need to understand who my wife really was.” Mr. Hoggsworth heaved himself out of his chair and ambled over to a roll-top desk. He shuffled through several tiny drawers until he found a miniature key. Beckoning Bala with the tiny, metal piece pinched between his fingers, he started forward. “Now, I’ve never shown this to anyone except my son, so I expect you to keep this a professional secret.”

Bala’s eyebrows rose as he followed Mr. Hoggsworth to a small bookcase on the back wall. A few tattered copies of ancient reference books and the usual Oldearth décor ornamented the shelf. Mr. Hoggsworth pulled out a faux Webster’s dictionary and pressed the key into a hidden wall hole. A click and a snap made Bala step back. One section of the wall opened, revealing a second bookcase stocked with a variety of books, all ancient and authentic.

“These were my wife’s treasures. They’re real history books that refer back to the Greeks and Romans and detail archeological finds with photos of ancient excavations and reference charts that illuminate the who’s who of history. Carol was extremely proud of our heritage. One thing she could not abide was this recent trend of changing historical records to make certain personalities appear better than they really are. It’s like how certain socialites claimed to be descended from the original Mayflower. All a bunch of hullabaloo.”

Bala tapped tentatively on one of the leather bindings and grinned. “I wish you had a cookbook among these treasures.”

Mr. Hoggsworth pursed his lips. “Well, if you’d like to know about the diets of Native Americans, Chinese, or Celts, there are recipes here. Carol once made a dish of roasted pork with fruit and wild rice that was absolutely delicious.”

Bala gulped for air. “Heaven, help me. How—?”

“She never told, but I believe that was the year when she and my son went on a three-day trip to the International Wildlife Center. Their bags bulged suspiciously when they returned.”

“I wish I had known her.” A beeping from his datapad forced Bala to check his message. “My wife would like help getting the kids in bed. All in caps.” Bala sighed and refocused on the case as he caressed a thick book. “So you think that Carol recognized a misrepresentation in Professor Baltimore’s work, confronted him, and he killed her?”

“I don’t think he did, but I think he alerted someone who did. Professor Baltimore is a mouse, but he’s clearly acquainted with a lion or two.” Mr. Hoggsworth retrieved the volume from Bala’s hand and pressed it back in the case. He relocked the cabinet.

Bala stepped back amiably enough, his mind shifting to new questions. “When I was reviewing your wife’s files, I found several articles about Governor Right.”

“Jane Right?”

“You know her?”

“I know of her… well, actually, we went to school together. Carol was her classmate. First, they were friends. Then, they were rivals. By the end, they were enemies.”

“Could she have discovered something that would rock the governor’s world?”

“Possibly. But Governor Right is not one to get her hands dirty. Not her. Besides, even if Carol knew, she wouldn’t bother with Jane. She couldn’t care less about politics. She wanted her son to trust his teachers, to know that they were telling the truth. Hence, the argument with Old Baltimore.”

“I see. Well, thank you. You’ve been most helpful.” Bala turned to go but then stopped mid-step. “Oh, I also noticed a few references to someone named Justine. I wasn’t sure if that was a file name or a person. Do you happen to know?”

“Justine? Doesn’t ring a bell. But, you know, Carol collected friends. I hardly knew them all.”

Bala bowed and swept out the door.

~~~

Clare stood outside Cerulean’s cabin on a patch of well-tilled soil and watched him scatter seeds in a wide arc from a bag looped over his shoulder. The sun shone down from a clear sky, while birds chirped encouragement from distant branches.

She tapped her foot. “You’ve taken up gardening?”

“It’s winter wheat. I’ll harvest it next summer.”

“Really?”

“And I’ll make the best bread this side of the Great Divide.” Clare pursed her lips. “Why?”

Cerulean looked up, shading his eyes from the bright sun behind Clare. “Why not? Bread is more than a staple for—”

“You know, I’m here on official business, and I don’t have time to watch you act out some antiquated Amens’ tradition.”

Cerulean tossed the last handful and patted his flattened bag, a frown darkening his face. “You’ve got an attitude.”

“Nothing new.” Clare padded across the lawn.

Folding his arms across his chest, Cerulean didn’t budge. “No, but I don’t happen to like this one.”

“Come on, Cerulean! I’m in a hurry. I have a supervisor who thinks that life is too short and wants every case solved yesterday.”

“Which case?”

“The Hoggsworth murder. I’ve got Bala going over things, but I’m not about to give up on Derik. You said you knew something. Tell me, so that I can go dig Bala out of whatever hole he’s gotten himself into.”

“Bala is a very competent detective.” Cerulean looked at the rectangular field and scratched his jaw. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to eat this much bread. You think Kendra would want some?”

“Kendra loves any sustenance, any time. Now, hurry up and talk!”

Cerulean strolled to the porch, pointing west with the folded pouch. “The strawberries will be ripe by then. I’ll try my hand at jam to go with the bread.”

Clare shook her head. “The Amens have turned you into a nature freak.”

Cerulean’s eyebrows rose as he looked back at her. “I’ll have you know, I was working on a farm generations before you were even born.”

Clare stopped at the bottom porch step and tapped her foot.

Cerulean heaved himself to the top step and sat. He looked Clare in the eye. “I went to Derik’s apartment to see how he’s getting along. I met someone I didn’t expect.”

Clare threw her hands out. “So? Is there a reason I should care? Wait. You didn’t meet his new love interest—Justine?” Clare kicked the step. “Poor, stupid guy. Is he in love with an old flame of yours? You never tell me much about your…life.”

Cerulean huffed. “That’s because there isn’t anything to tell. I wish you’d listen before leaping. How do you ever manage to solve a case?”

“End of lecture. Go on.”

“Yes, it was Justine, but Justine isn’t a love interest of mine, she’s a…person I met a long time ago. She was on trial.”

An I-knew-it eye-roll accompanied a puff of breath. “Uh-huh.”

“I was surprised to see her—alive.” Cerulean clasped his hands and stared off into the distance.

“Alive?”

“Last time I saw her, she was on a steel table being turned off.”

Clare’s mouth dropped open. “As in a robot?”

“She’s an android. A very advanced android. You’d never guess, unless you knew her history. Even then, you might not believe it.”

Clare slapped her forehead. “So, Derik is in love with a robot?”

Cerulean bounded to his feet. “Justine is not a robot. She’s a person, a combination of modern technology and fetal—”

“Don’t give me that! She’s one of those… those things that go around pretending to be human but are hired out for every dirty job under—”

“Stop! Listen to yourself. You’re not even giving me a chance.” Cerulean clambered down the steps, pushed past Clare, and pounded down the path to the woods.

Clare hustled after him. “Okay, okay! Don’t get angry. But you gotta admit; this is pretty bad. I mean, Derik’ll be crushed.”

Cerulean pivoted and faced Clare. “Human beings are quite resilient. Trust me, I ought to know.” He hustled down the path again, allowing room for Clare to keep pace at his side.

Ignoring the branches scratching against her jacket, Clare glanced at Cerulean. “So, is this Justine a nice robot-person? I mean, she isn’t a hired gun or anything.”

Cerulean paced further into the woods. “Well, actually, she was a hired gun. That’s why she was on trial. But it was a long time ago; she’s changed.”

“Terrific, just terrific! How long ago?”

“Seventy years, give or take….”

“Lord, she’s twice Derik’s age!”

“Three or four times, I’d imagine.”

“Then what is she doing? It’d be like my great-great-grandmother trying to date you. Oh, except—”

“I’d still be older by a millennium.”

“Geesh, you non-humans really mess up the romantic time-line.” Clare kept in step with Cerulean as they wound between trees. A vine clutched her pant leg and forced her to stop. “Dang these prickles. Why didn’t you eradicate them when you bought the place?”

“I like nature and all her wild and prickly personalities.” Cerulean stared down at Clare and a smile softened his features. “One of the reasons I like you.”

Sucking a pricked finger, Clare glowered. “If you like me so much, help me get unstuck. This thing is cutting me to shreds.”

Cerulean gently lifted the vine off her leg and tossed it aside. “See, you just need to know how to handle nature.”

Clare blushed. “Stay on topic.” She started forward again. “Shouldn’t Derik know? I mean his heart’s beating pretty fast for a woman who’s not even human, and who might be planning to dig him a grave so she can rack up some extra units.”

Cerulean peered up at the mottled sunlight pouring through the trees. “Things are rarely what they seem—except when they are.”

“Is that supposed to help?”

Making a one-eighty turn, Cerulean started back up the path. “I’ll talk with Justine. She trusts me, and she owes me a favor. If she’s been hired to kill Derik, she’ll tell me.”

Clare flapped her arms and skipped aside to avoid a scampering chipmunk. “Why should she talk to you? Didn’t you say you were at her trial, where apparently, she was found guilty?”

“Yeah, but thanks to me, she still has her mind.” He darted a meaningful look at Clare. “After all, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. ~William Shakespeare 

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—Prologue

ALIEN RACES

Bhuac: A gelatinous race with no set form from the planet Helm. They can mold themselves into the likeness of a variety of races.

Cresta: A techno-organic race from the planet Crestar with long, soft bodies, tentacles, and large, watery eyes. They speak in a synthesized voice, and their large brain sack lays hidden behind a spiral shell. They wear breathing helms when not on their own water-based planet.

Ingot: A cyborg race from planet Ingilium that wears bulky techno-organic armor and breather helms built directly into their bodies.

Luxonian: Light beings from the planet Lux. Luxonians send out Guardians on a regular basis to observe alien cultures in order to protect their interests in the region.

Uanyi: Small, slim creatures from the planet Sectine, stand- ing about four to five feet tall, insect-like, with soft, rubbery exoskeletons, enormous eyes, and wear a breathing mask that covers their crab-like mandibles.

~~~

Cerulean, a Luxonian light being, prayed to an unknown God amid the swirling masses. The tips of his fingers touched steeple style as he appeared in his favorite form: a muscular, middle-aged man with soulful, blue eyes and a determined chin. He sat on a dais facing a massive assembly and squared his shoulders. The crowded, domed hall decorated with statues of long-dead but never-to-be-forgotten members of the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee resonated with numerous murmuring conversations. As his gaze flowed over the squirming court of very-much-alive representatives of six races, Cerulean’s mind slipped back to the love of his life, Anne Smith, whom he had buried under a blooming apple tree on Oldearth twenty-three years before.

He closed his eyes to the memory. After a deep breath, he reopened them to face the trial of another woman of interest: Justine Santana, an android and one of the most notorious weapons ever used during the Intergalactic Oskilth War.

After a despairing human remnant abandoned Earth and fled to Lux, Cerulean crafted a resettlement plan for Newearth, but war intervened. Now, after the last war crimes trial, he would finally be free to help humanity resettle on Newearth.

But this trial must come first. After all, Justine was human too…“

“Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.”

~Alfred Lord Tennyson

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Six

A New Light

—Grasslands and Hill Lands—

Tobia sat next to Remy before a glowing fire with Remy’s men, Jonas, Obed, Onia, and his little sister, Mari, seated in a semicircle on the other side.

A full moon rose in the evening sky. Birds sang their goodnight songs from nests built among the swaying grasses as a refreshing breeze swept through.

Laughter erupted between Remy’s men as they discussed their return trip home the next morning. Remy listened and laughed along with them, sampling from various platters of barley bread, roasted quail, wild rice, and early onions. Flasks of thick mead sat within arm’s reach.

After swigging down a bowlful of mead and eating enough to fill his belly, Remy tapped Tobia playfully on the shoulder. “So, when will you come to visit me and my sister, eh?”

“I’m not at my full strength yet.” A blush burned in Tobia’s cheeks. “And my family needs me…”

Remy’s men chuckled, sweeping glances between Remy and Tobia. One man spoke for the rest. “If Remy had his way, he’d race us all home. But since he’s so old and worn out now, we’ll have to carry him the distance.”

Flicking a twig at the man, Remy laughed. “I’ll have had a long night’s rest by the time you stagger in.”

Obed snorted and took a swig from his bowl.

Jonas frowned and turned to her guest. “I want to thank you again for all the aid you gave Tobia. You’ve been a valuable friend. More than we can ever repay.”

A sly gleam entered Remy’s eye as he focused his gaze on Tobia. “Oh, he can repay our kindness any time he wants.”

Obed wiped his mouth, his eyes narrowing. “How?”

Tobia stiffened.

“I happen to have a very beautiful and good-hearted sister…and she’s taken a liking to your son.”

Tobia glanced around and met a dozen eyes staring at him. He sighed, his shoulders slumping as he stared at his scarred hands.

Obed reached over and teasingly smacked Tobia on the shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I hardly know—”

Obed rose shakily and swung his bowl into the air. “I propose that we invite Remy and his sister to return for a feast in three months—”

Jonas tugged on Obed’s legging. “Stop! You can’t do that. It’s rude to ask them to travel here again so soon. They’ve already done so much.”

Obed swayed, his voice slurring. “You’re right!” He glanced at Tobia. “Stand up, son.”

Tobia swallowed back a bitter taste rising in his throat and stood beside Obed.

Obed flopped his arm around Tobia and gazed into his son’s eyes. “She’s beautiful?” he asked, his breath pungent.

Tobia clenched his jaw and looked down as the men around him chuckled and his little sister giggled. “Yes, and kind. And I’d like to see—”

“Then the next full moon, we’ll visit Remy’s village! As your father, I should meet the family.” He nudged Tobia in the chest. “That’ll give you cause to rebuild your strength.” He refilled Remy’s bowl.

Remy rose and saluted Obed, sloshing the mead. “I look forward to that day. The preparations shall begin the moment I get home.” He beamed at Tobia. “Kamila will rejoice.”

Remy’s men stood and cheered, pounding their spears.

Jonas climbed to her feet, gripping Tobia’s shoulder. Her eyes locked onto her son.

His heart tearing in pain, Tobia clenched his hands at his sides and forced a smile.

~~~

Eoban shrugged. “Whatever makes you happy, Jonas. I’ll do my best.” A dead weight settled in his gut as he watched her hurry back to her dwelling in the bright light of a new day.

Heading home, Obed strolled by, glanced in Eoban’s direction, and changed trajectory, intercepting his friend.

A flock of geese flew overhead in perfect formation, honking as they went.

Eoban exhaled, threw back his shoulders, and mentally prepared himself. He muttered under his breath. “Should’ve gone hunting.” He acknowledged Obed’s nod with a nod of his own.

“What did Jonas want?”

“She wants me to go with you to Remy’s village.”

His eyes still bloodshot from the previous night’s revelry, Obed’s jaw clenched as he flashed a glance at Jonas hanging fish on a line. “Why?”

“You know Jonas. She worries.”

“She thinks I’ll get lost or captured?”

Eoban rubbed his neck and wished he could fly away with the geese. “I think she’s worried about Tobia, and that—”

“His father will push him into something he’s not ready for?”

Eoban held his tongue in check.

Obed’s eyes traveled to the hills where dots of black and white sheep grazed and stick-like boys played on the grass. “In that case, I’ll take Onia with me. Perhaps I can be trusted with one of my sons.”

Two emaciated dogs quarreled over a bone, creating a racket.

Eoban frowned and raised his voice. “Listen, Obed. Jonas loves you. She worried the whole time you were a prisoner. She’s a mother too, and she can’t divide her emotions up into reasonable parts. She’s been afraid for so long, it’s become a way of life. Don’t be angry that she wants an extra man to help out in case there’s trouble.” He shrugged. “There could be trouble.”

“Barak isn’t coming?”

“No sane man would ask Milkan to let him go.”

With a snort, Obed nudged Eoban. “You’re right. I’m being unreasonable.”

Eoban dropped his gaze. “Truth is…you and Tobia may behave yourselves on this trip…but I don’t know about Remy.”

Obed scowled. “Why? He’s an exceptional fighter and a strong leader.”

“Yes, but he’s a terrible singer.” Eoban whapped Obed on the back and called over his shoulder as he strolled away. “It’ll be up to you to lead the chant during the wedding ceremony.”

~~~

Tobia woke early on the morning of their departure and forced down a breakfast of roasted fish, rice, and toasted grains mixed with fruit and nuts.

Onia stood near, shuffling from foot to foot.

Tobia swallowed his last bite and wiped his mouth.

“What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you going to eat?”

Onia shook his head, one hand gripping his lean belly. “I can’t.” He glanced toward the hills. “When are we going to start?”

With a bulging bag slung over his shoulder, Obed marched toward them.

Tobia wiped his hands and stood, willing himself strength he did not feel. The thought of Obed meeting Kamila turned his legs to water. One sidelong wink and Kamila would know what his father really thought of him.

Grim-faced, Jonas paced close at Obed’s side.

“We’ll leave soon enough.”

Tobia dropped his tone to a whisper. “You’ll soon wish you were home again.”

Onia frowned and stepped aside.

Obed stopped beside his brother and nodded at the crumb-strewn tray. “You’ll get a stomach ache walking off all that food.”

Jonas squeezed her husband’s arm and peered at her son. “He’s young. He could eat a whole hog and then run till the sun sets.” She glanced from Onia to Tobia. “You’re ready?”

Onia’s legs jiggled in the anxious waiting.

Obed frowned. “Calm down. You’ll wear yourself out before you even leave.”

From the far side of the village, Eoban hustled forward. As he neared, the glint in his eye shone brighter. “Everyone ready?” He jutted his chin at Obed’s bulky bag. “What’ve you got there?”

“Just a few items to trade, if they’re interested.” Obed nudged Onia. “Get that other sack I filled.”

A frown deepened between Jonas’s brows. “I thought this was just a friendly visit?”

“Trade is friendly.” Obed pulled her close, kissed her cheek, and whispered in her ear. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.” He glanced up as Onia jogged forward with the second, larger bag. “Come on; the sun won’t wait, and Remy will think we’ve forgotten our promise.”

Eoban snorted. “Once he sees those bags and Tobia’s smiling face, he’ll forgive any delay.”

All eyes turned to Tobia.

Forcing a grin, Tobia nodded and pointed to the hills. “Let’s go.”

Eoban tapped Onia on the shoulder. “Get in front. Might as well learn how to lead when you don’t know where you’re going. I do it all the time.”

Jonas stared at Tobia, their gazes joined in understanding. She kissed his cheek and let him go.

Tobia stepped forward, glancing back at Obed’s bulging sack, feeling the weight of it on his shoulder. “We’ll take a direct path this time and perhaps we won’t lose anyone.”

~~~

Tobia saw Kamila first. Though the journey had been swift and direct, the return to a site associated with so many painful memories wearied him. Only her smile encouraged his lagging feet the last steps.

Remy sprinted to him, his arms wide in welcome. The whole village surrounded the visitors, grins on every face.

Thrusting his bag into Eoban’s arms, Obed jogged forward and gripped Remy’s hand. “Well met!” He surveyed the crowd and stopped at Kamila who stood at Remy’s side. “This must be the beauty everyone told me about!”

Standing next to Eoban and watching the scene, Tobia clenched his jaw.

Eoban pressed the young man’s shoulder. “Obed is just showing off. Don’t get impatient.”
They waited and watched.

As Obed chatted with Remy, Kamila peered around his shoulder. She met Tobia’s gaze.

A flush worked over Tobia, embarrassment fighting with irritation. He marched to Obed’s side and nodded to Remy first. “Good to see you again.”

Remy laughed and pulled him into a bear hug. “Well met indeed!” He turned to the watching crowd. “Let the feasting begin!”

Tobia’s attention shifted to Kamila, and their eyes met.

Twisting her hands, she blushed and glanced at the villagers. Everyone scurried to attend to food-laden tables and a dressed goat roasting over an open fire pit.

Tobia shuffled in place and bit his lip.

Eoban shoved Onia toward the tables. “Go help out and get me a snack. I’m famished.” He strode to Tobia, nodded at Kamila, and grinned. “You two take a walk somewhere. Find out if there are any enemies ready to attack.”

Kamila’s eyes widened.

Tobia snorted and took Kamila’s hand. “We better go before my father and Remy take notice and—”

Kamila gripped his hand, and they darted into the woods.

~~~

Tobia’s spirits rose to new heights and his full stomach settled in contentment as a full moon rose in the night sky. Kamila grinned at him with her usual confident composure, and Obed had not touched his trade goods.

After helping the women clear the dishes and trays away, Kamila returned and perched on a log next to Tobia. She pointed to three new huts on the west side of the village. “Remy and the men built homes for our new elders. They’ve earned their keep in a hundred ways since they came, watching the children, nursing the sick, assisting new mothers.”

Tobia shook his head in wonder. “I’d never have thought they had it in them to be helpful. They were so anxious and troublesome on the journey.” He glanced at her. “I felt terrible leaving here…just dropping them into your hands for safekeeping.”

Kamila tilted her head, her dark eyes sparkling in the firelight. “You’ve had troubles of your own, Tobia. Too many troubles for one so young.”

Sudden tears startled Tobia. How could she see into his heavy heart and understand his grief? He swallowed and took a firm grip on his emotions. “I’m not young…not really. My mother said I grew old the day my father died.”

Reaching out, Kamila placed her hand over Tobia’s. “I lost my parents at a young age, too. I understand.” She nodded at Remy, who laughed at something Obed said. “He’s been father, mother, as well as brother ever since they died.”

Tobia laced his fingers into Kamila’s. “I’m sorry. I forget that others have lost more than—”

Sliding off the log and sitting next to Tobia, Kamila leaned in. “It’s not like that. There’s no comparison. We all grieve our losses and endure painful trials. But helping others makes us less lonely along the way.”

“Can I help you, Kamila?”

A smile twitched on her lips. “I think so—”

A shout turned their heads.

Onia stood hunched with both trade sacks over his shoulders.

Obed nudged his youngest forward while glancing at Remy. “See what I’ve brought, my friend.” He turned and waved the crowd closer. “Come and see if there’s anything you’d like to trade for. My clan wants to embrace you all as brothers and sisters. Let’s exchange goods.”

Tobia dropped his head to his chest. “By the stars. He’s becoming more like Eoban every day.”

Eoban stepped up and pressed Tobia’s shoulder. “I was never so obvious.”

With a shrug, Kamila laughed. “He’s happy. Making deals and showing off his wares is like medicine to a man. Besides, trade with the wider world will do us no harm. And it’s a natural preparation for the wedding exchange.”

Cold fear swept over Tobia. He glanced at Kamila’s serene face. How does she do it?

Obed’s face glowed, reflecting of the firelight, and Remy laughed uproariously at a joke Onia cracked. Obed clapped Onia on the shoulder and never once looked at Tobia.

Kamila peered through the dim light. “You don’t look well.” She stood and tugged Tobia’s hand. “You need a different kind of medicine.”

Glancing at Eoban, Tobia’s heart jumped to his throat as he climbed to his feet.

Eoban nodded to an empty hut on the edge of the village. “A little hug won’t hurt. Mind you, I said a little hug. Go on. Take your time. I’ll make sure they stay occupied.”

Stepping into the shadows, Kamila grinned and beckoned Tobia to follow.

Tobia halted and glanced from his father and the villagers clustered together, to Eoban who crossed his arms and turned away, to Kamila who waited with one inviting hand extended. Warmth spread over his body, and thunder, like an impending storm, roared in his ears. He gripped Kamila’s hand.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ~Rumi

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