Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-Two

A Worthy Goal

The evening’s winter wind had settled to a mild breeze as Derik jogged hunch-shouldered at Faye’s side. Slugging his chilled hands deep into his coat pockets, he frowned at the memory of Faye’s unblushing impersonation of a guard, allowing her to affect his release. Though he towered above her slight form, her prancing step kept him lumbering along at a quicker pace than was comfortable for his Cresta-booted feet. Tripping over a clump of ice, he nearly sprawled onto the sidewalk.

Faye reached out and steadied him. “Don’t slip. I can’t change out in the open, so I wouldn’t be much help if you got hurt.”

Derik pulled his hands out of his pocket to maintain his balance and nodded. He darted a quick look at the little Bhuac. “You’re amazing. I still don’t understand how your race can be at risk. You just sprung me from the clutches of Governor Right! You could use the same tactics everywhere and no one could touch you.”

Faye glanced up at Derik’s large brown eyes. “Have you never yearned to be free—to be yourself? Freed from the secret bonds necessary to keep you safe?”

Derik shrugged. “Beyond my boots, I don’t have many protective bonds. In fact, if you hadn’t saved me from my last fall, even these boots wouldn’t have saved me.”

A curious half-smile played around Faye’s lips.

Derik grabbed her arm and pulled her under the shelter of a weeping willow. The long tendrils swept around them like a lacy curtain as busy pedestrians hurried by. “What? There’s something you’re not telling me.”

Faye’s almond-shaped eyes danced at Derik. “There is a great deal I’m not telling you. But to keep you happy and in the interest of building trust, I will share this particular incident.”

Derik wiggled his fingers like a child waiting for a ball to come his way.

“When I learned of your existence, I was quite interested to learn more about you, which meant I had to learn more about Taug. So, on occasion, I would investigate his laboratory. Not long ago, I became so perplexed by one of his experiments that I did not notice his return—until it was almost too late.”

Faye blushed a bright pink and covered her cheeks with her petite hands. “This is very embarrassing.”

Derik’s grin widened.

“I reacted on instinct. I don’t know why, exactly, but I changed into a small dog, one of those yapping little quadrupeds that like to chew and snarl at everything.”

Derik shook his head and snapped a weathered twig off the tree. “Wouldn’t have been my first choice.”

“Certainly. If I had been prepared or thinking clearly…but I was so concerned by what I saw that I lost all reasoning.”

“What did Taug do when he saw a mutt in his immaculate laboratory? Oh, I wish I had been there!”

Faye blushed harder. “He did what any irate scientist would do. He tried to shush me away. But I was annoyed and—” She dropped her gaze.

“You’ve come this far. Tell me everything.”

“I attacked his boots. I nearly shredded them before I ran away.”

Derik let out a yelp that turned heads. One passerby stopped and peered between the swaying branches. “You okay in there, little Miss?”

Derik cupped his hands over his laughter.

Faye smiled brightly at the concerned face and nodded like a six-year-old. “I’m fine. My dad’s having one of his spells. Just give him a minute. He’ll come out of it.”

The stranger grunted, dropped the trailing vine, and turned away.

In a formal manner, Derik took Faye by the arm. “All right, daughter, you and I have a mission to accomplish. Let’s go find Taug and free Justine. If he gives us any trouble, you can turn into a poodle and shred his bio-suit.

~~~

The cold, sterile laboratory appeared ashen in the dim light, echoing only dead silence as if it knew it had been abandoned and could not bear the truth.

Faye entered first, one thin-fingered hand lifted in front, probing for danger. Not a whisper or a swirl of movement responded to their approach.

Derik marched stiff and hunch-shouldered behind, ready for anything. Not ready for nothing. “I wish I had a Dustbuster.”

Faye halted and looked back at him. “Why? No one’s here.”

“One never knows when Taug’ll show up. Remember the incident with the boots? Besides, I’d dearly love to blast his equipment to smithereens. It would serve him right. Double-crossing me!”

Faye circled the empty room, tapping and touching various instruments. “He never lied to you, Derik. He told you that he might have to kill you. It wasn’t exactly his choice.”

Derik tromped over to the pool wall, splayed his fingers across the glass, and stared into the murky depths. “You sound like you sympathize with him…your enemy.”

Faye lifted the top off the dissection tube and shuddered. “I sympathize with all trapped beings. I know how it feels.”

Derik slapped his forehead. “You’re—”

The sound of someone clearing his throat made Faye and Derik freeze. Slowly the two turned in unison, like ballet dancers thawing from a deep frost.

Cerulean stepped over the threshold and folded his arms across his chest. “Honestly, I wasn’t expecting this.”

~~~

Taug groaned as he leaned against the hard, uncompromising transport chair, his tentacles limp at his side. He squeezed his eyes against the discomfort of the harness that kept him from sliding off the seat, while his ample middle bulged unceremoniously at droopy angles.

He choked out a ragged whisper. “I deplore space travel.”

Justine, sitting ramrod straight with her feet firmly set on the smooth floor, crossed her arms languidly over her unharnessed lap. “It could be worse. You could be traveling in the baggage compartment.”

A mere flicker of a glance indicated Taug’s awareness of Justine’s dry sense of humor.

Four other travelers sat strapped in their own ample seats. Two humans, well equipped with state-of-the-art headsets, tapped their datapads while their eyes scanned invisible screens. Two Crestas, younger and more robust than Taug, strained against their harnesses and leaned over to whisper to each other.

A loud buzz announced their entry into space and freed the occupants from their unnatural positions. The humans unbuckled and left without even glancing at the other passengers. The Crestas grunted with relief as they rose and passed into the passage. They studied a map highlighting the ship’s points of interest, including the dining section.

Tapping her thigh, Justine rose and ambled across the small space.

Fumbling with his straps, Taug’s grunts sharpened to disgust.

Unmoved, Justine faced him. “So tell me more about your planet…your people. What is the plan?”

Taug jerked fiercely at his strap, which nearly choked him. He gasped. “Get this damn thing off me, or you’ll be arriving with a dead body.”

Justine frowned but stepped forward. “Is that how you see yourself? I thought you considered yourself a scientist of the highest order, nothing less than a brilliant mind—”

“Hurry! I can’t breathe!”

Justine jerked the strap so that it loosened the clasp and pulled it free from Taug’s body. She stared down at the threadbare material. “Primitive. I wonder why they haven’t come up with something better.”

Taug staggered to his feet and wiggled his tentacles to reanimate his circulation. “The captain knows that the few travelers between Crestar and Newearth are either desperate or preoccupied. Humans don’t go to Crestar unless they are ordered there on business, and Cresta scientists would rather keep our monetary resources for our work. No incentive for comfortable seating.”

“But you like padded chairs and easy comforts.”

“I’m high enough in the food chain to be used to such things. But I like to appear before my superiors as an earnest scientist who happily endures simple hardships without complaint.” He flicked a grimaced smile at Justine. “You won’t give away my little secret, now, will you?”

Justine tilted her head and gestured toward the dining section. “We all have our secrets. How about you teach me the fundamentals of Crestonian cuisine? After all, I intend to be at the top of your food chain, and I’d hate to eat anyone out of order.”

As they settled into their dining booth, Taug waved a tentacle and alerted the host on duty.

A Cresta youth ambled over, looking eager to please, his golden eyes large and watery. “We’re honored to have you onboard, Taug. I’ve been told to offer you the best we have—” He bent down and whispered in an awestruck tone. “—no matter the cost.” His fleshy eyebrows wiggled to underscore the momentous news.

Taug glanced at Justine and then offered a rewarding smile to the young, obviously aspiring Cresta. “I’d like to introduce my protégé to our finest selection. How about we start with—”

As Taug gabbed on about Cresta food options, Justine scanned the dining room. The two other Crestas were bent over sloppy bowls of sticky goo, though they hardly seemed to be eating. She watched as they made every pretense of conversing and enjoying a good meal. She smirked. Apparently, Taug’s own kind didn’t trust him either.

The host practically skipped away.

Justine eyed Taug as he leaned back in the padded booth. Burns, rips, and more than one dent in the furnishings attested to the lack of luxury. But it would hold together for their quick trip. “Happy now?”

Taug closed his eyes and sighed. “Until landing, I’m free and I’ve ordered the finest meal available this side of the Divide. I always like to look on the sunny side.”

“Sunnyside? A rather human sentiment for a Cresta, isn’t it? You like to dive into deep water and surround yourselves with murky gloom.” As Taug did not respond, Justine laced her fingers together, propped her elbows on the table, and leaned in. “Tell me your plans so I know what to expect. I’m not particularly confident that we’ll meet a happy reception.”

Taug opened his eyes and let a lazy gaze rove over Justine. “Why are you worried? I politely informed Mitholie that I was bringing home a prize worth uncountable units.” Taug grinned. “Trust me, he’s waiting with bated breath.”

Justine pursed her lips in the direction of the two other Crestas. “So why did he send guards?”

Taug’s gaze rolled across the room. He shrugged. “I’m always watched. It’s part of the Cresta Code. Watch your back and watch everyone else too.”

“You’re not a very trusting race, are you?”

“Should we be? We value science, and we value advancement. We do not suffer fools.”

“So what am I? Besides a prize, I mean.” Justine’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not going to be experimented on?”

The host appeared with a large tray, which he set to the side. With skillful motions, he set the table with bowls, utensils, and drinks. Using padded mitts, he placed a steaming bowl in the center. “Watch yourselves now, it’s as hot as it looks, but the cook says it’s the best batch he’s made in eons.” With a sharp bow, the youth smiled, his eyes desperate for approval.

Taug accommodated the juvenile with a smile and a nod.

“I’ll check on the main course and be back shortly.” A quick turn sent the young Cresta on his way.

Taug delicately ladled soup into Justine’s bowl and handed it over. “Ah, I wish I were trying Samong for the first time with you. It’s a true delicacy.” He leaned in and whispered. “One of the ingredients is only found on a reclusive mountaintop. Though researchers have tried for years to duplicate it, they can’t get the subtle flavor that makes it so unique.”

Justine took a tentative sip. She shrugged. “It tastes a lot like the tomato soup that Cerulean makes.”

Taug sniffed the wafting aroma and grunted. “Cerulean! Don’t ruin my appetite.” He sipped from his spoon and hummed. “It is a good batch.”

Justine laid her spoon aside and folded her arms. “I have serious questions, none of which you are answering.”

Taug slurped another long draught, his shoulders relaxing. “I told you, Derik will be safe until your return. I offered Governor Right a deal she couldn’t resist.”

Justine’s eyes narrowed. “Such as?”

“She holds on to Derik, unharmed, until your return, and I’ll pass our android findings onto her—to do with as she wishes.”

“You’d do that? Give Newearth and that self-serving liar android—”

Taug lifted a tentacle. “You forget yourself. Remember, you’re serving your own interests as well. We all are.” He took another happy sip. “Besides, it’ll take her eons to decode it.” He leaned back and patted his stomach. “All you need to do is let a few select scientists study you—nothing invasive—and you’ll be free to return to Newearth under a new identity, collect Derik, and go wherever you wish.”

“You won’t need Derik—ever? You’re giving up your crossbreed studies completely?”

Taug grinned. “What do I need with a crossbreed when I have a much better alternative? An android with Cresta DNA will be a far more worthy goal. We’ll become like gods.”

Justine shoved her bowl away. “They will be, anyway…”

“Unless we learn to know ourselves, we run the danger of destroying ourselves.”
~Ja A. Jahannes

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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

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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

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

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

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

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty Part I

An Inconvenient Truth

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

But no…

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

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

“Hi, Roux. It’s been a while.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Not always their fault.”

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

Cerulean stiffened. “Their what?”

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

“Hell!”

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

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

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

“As a favor to me.”

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

“Any suggestions?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in a hurry.

~~~

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

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

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

“You don’t have nerves, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Never had the pleasure.”

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

“Probably because I am.”

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

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

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

“Spy on me.”

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

“Am I a nervous wreck?”

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

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

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

“Yet most Luxonians forego the pleasure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Derik?”

“Who?”

“The crossbreed.”

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

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

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

“About Derik?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Nineteen

Enlighten Me

Bright, deceiving sunshine shone down on the after-holiday crowd as they endured their first day back to work. Some wore their new gifts of bright hats, thick coats, and padded footwear to protect themselves from the harsh, winter elements. Color and style did little to assist the beings as they plowed against a freezing wind. Survival loomed as the greatest good while ascetics followed a distant second. Holiday happiness had, by necessity, been replaced by grit and determination.

Governor Right stood before her ornate office cabinet and poured amber liquid into a shot glass. She tossed the drink down her throat. After an initial grimace, her face relaxed. With a sigh, she carried the bottle and the glass over to her desk and settled onto her padded chair. She poured herself another.

“This could go on all day.” Mitholie stood just inside the governor’s office doorway. The door slid shut behind him with a slight hiss.

Governor Right shot to her feet, her eyes narrowing. “Who let you in here? Who are you?”

“May I have a taste? It’s not often that I have an opportunity to enjoy Newearth cuisine.”

“Go to Bothmal! You’re one of Taug’s little minions, is that it? Listen, Cresta, I have—”

“Tut, tut. At least, I think that’s the way you humans express polite displeasure. I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re shockingly ignorant. I’m no one’s minion. I’m a leading scientist on Crestar. Some would say, the—”

A gasp knocked the governor back onto her chair. “Mitholie? By the Divide, what brings you here?” Her hand trembled as she pulled open a drawer and withdrew a second glass.

Mitholie’s bulbous eyes glittered. “I’m so glad you asked.”

Governor Right watched in fascinated disgust as Mitholie first sniffed her expensive brandy and then poured it into his breathing helm. Her mouth hung ajar like a broken hangar door.

Blinking his reaction under control, Mitholie grinned crookedly. “I had no idea you had such delicious liquids available. Taug’s been keeping more than a few secrets.”

Taug’s name jolted Governor Right, her gaze hardening. “Have you seen him lately? I’d love to arrest him on a variety of charges, but he’s difficult to pin down, and I don’t want to offend—”

Mitholie waved her concerns away. “Humans can’t help being offensive. It’s in your nature. But don’t worry, I’ve learned to control my sensibilities.”

The governor plowed ahead. “He does have one last piece of business to dispose of. Apparently, he’s been stupid enough to awaken an android war criminal and planned to use it as an executioner—when need be. Or should I say, if need be. I get the feeling that honest Taug hasn’t been exactly straightforward with us.”

“Your scintillating insight is as I expected.” Mitholie blew bubbles through his breather helm before continuing. “No Cresta is ever straightforward with anyone, least of all another Cresta.”

“So you knew about his plans to create more half-breeds?”

“I knew the temptation would be irresistible.”

Governor Right rose and strode to the furthest corner where the shadow had resided on its last visit. She searched the corners of the room. “Do you also know that other forces are at work here? Non-Cresta forces?”

Mitholie shuffled to a padded chair across from the governor’s desk and snuffed another long draught from his spiked breather helm. “You mean the Ingoti drug runners? They’re—”

“No. Not Ingoti. I mean another race. One I can’t name.”

“Can’t or won’t? Please, don’t be shy. We’re friends—enjoying liquids together.”

“Priceless!” Clenching her hands together, the governor began to pace. “I’m not sure how much to say. I’ve had the office scanned numerous times, but one never knows who might be listening.” She stepped closer, dropping her voice. “My guest has arrived at odd intervals and proven to be surprisingly resourceful. And dangerous.”

Mitholie regarded Jane Right with a cold stare. “To what purpose?”

The governor looked away, her gaze unfocused and her words hesitant. “I’m not certain. But I know that it has an interest in Ingoti investments.”

“Experimental drugs?”

“Could be.”

“Well, that’s always good for a few extra units. Not terribly dangerous, except to the test race. Human, this time, eh?”

The governor nodded.

Mitholie stroked his chin, his eyes half-lidded. “I don’t think that needs to disturb us. My mission is to keep the good name of Crestar intact. Taug had a simple job to do, but he failed.”

The governor resumed her stroll around the office. “So, you didn’t expect him to experiment on the side?”

“I dearly hoped he would. Every bit of scientific knowledge is worth a million units. You don’t have that saying?” A sad shake of the head appeared to denote further proof of pitiful, human ignorance. “In any case, I assumed he’d experiment first. But I expected him to be quicker and subtler. And now you tell me he has an android war machine at his disposal? Dark waters. This becomes cloudy, indeed.”

“If it makes you any happier, I have the half-breed in one of my private holding cells. I ordered Taug to destroy the android.”

“If he didn’t obey me, what makes you think he’ll obey you?”

With a nonchalant wave, Governor Right played her hand. “I own his laboratory.”

Mitholie squirmed in glee. “You couldn’t pinch a Cresta in a more tender spot! I take back what I said earlier; you are scintillating.” Mitholie heaved himself out of the chair and shuffled to the door. “I think we can do better, though. Have your mysterious friend kill the half-breed in the interest of race relations and put the android on trial for its life. Everyone loves a spectacle. Offer a dramatic show, and you’ll become the hero of the season.” Mitholie chuckled as he ambled through the door. “You could sell tickets.”

Watching the door slide shut, the governor slid her palm-sized Dustbuster back into her pocket.

~~~

Derik sat bolt upright. The darkness blanketed everything. Even with his heightened Cresta sensitivities, he could not peer through the black gloom. Someone was in his cell with him. He could sense it.

Shivering, he wrapped himself in the thin blanket offered by Governor Right’s officers. He had chuckled at the irony of being locked up by secret police when he had been living in the open every day of his life. The chuckle had worn off hours ago.

“You’re finally awake. I was getting bored.”

Derik shot to his feet.

A muscular arm reached out and stopped him before he made it to the door. “Say one word, and you’ll suffer a fatal heart attack.”

With an audible swallow, Derik muttered. “My heart is strong.”

“Not when it’s crushed.”

“What do you want?”

“To understand you.”

Derik’s chuckle returned and quickly morphed into insane laughter. Clutching the wall, he leaned at a crazy angle. “Everyone wants to understand me—I can’t even understand my- self. What? You’re a friend of Taug’s?”

“I’ve never been so insulted!” The shadow retreated to a far corner and folded the arms of its robe. “Actually, you and I are not dissimilar. I too have suffered from, shall we say, identity confusion.”

Derik sighed. “My sympathies. But unless you are being hunted like—”

“My people have been hunted longer than you can imagine. Our perfection makes us a target for every conquering race. As your unique qualities make you a prized possession.”

“So you’re not Cresta or Ingoti…or even Uanyi.” Derik let loose with a low whistle. “You’re Bhuac?”

The intake of breath brought the first real smile to Derik’s face. “I wish I could see you, though I suppose it wouldn’t matter as you can take any form. I’d never see you again—would I?”

The shadow drifted nearer. “I didn’t expect this level of perception. No one else has ever guessed.”

“Must be the human-Cresta combination. A sensitive heart, an analytical mind—quick reflexes.” Derik’s hand snapped forward and caught the figure by the throat. “Why are you here? No one needs my sympathy.”

“I could become a Kalama tiger and devour you.”

“I’d break your neck before your first bite.” As Derik applied pressure, the figure shrank. He shoved it against the wall and snapped his fingers in the air. “Make some light would you?”

A blue glow flared and a dainty Bhuac figure appeared before Derik, resembling a fairy child enveloped in soft radiance. “My name is Faye.”

Derik fell back against the wall. “I’d say it’s nice to meet you, but life’s been a bit challenging of late, and I don’t feel like lying.”

Faye stepped forward. “I’m here to ask a favor.”

Derik flapped his arms as if to embrace his environment. “You do realize that I’m in prison—about to be murdered?”

“I won’t let that happen. But I need you to make me a promise.”

“Oh, sure. I’m in the mood for granting favors. How about I give you the sun and the moon? Anything else?”

Faye swayed over to the hard bed and perched on the edge. “My family was destroyed in the Telathot incursion. Before she was taken prisoner, I promised my mother I would save my people. I’ve lived a lie for generations of your kind and served through deceit and despair, using every race at my disposal to keep the Bhuaci safe from any further desolation.”

Derik slid down the wall and sat on the floor. “I’m impressed. In fact, I’m ashamed. I shouldn’t have—”

Faye rose and paced in front of Derik, like a general reviewing her troops. “As a half-breed, you have special advantages. And your friend, the android, also has certain gifts. I want you to promise to assist me in protecting my race.”

Rubbing his hands through his hair, Derik sighed. “If I wasn’t locked in a cage, I’d be willing, but as you can see, my options are limited. Justine is probably—” He doubled over, agonized shivers wracking his body. “What will they do to her?”

“I don’t know, but even if she is destroyed, there must be others like her. Do you know—?”

Derik covered his face with his fists. “I don’t care. I only care about her.” He lowered his hands and glared through haunted eyes. “Have you ever been in love?”

A twisted smile disfigured Faye’s petite face. “I have suffered so, without the benefits.”

Derik’s head fell back against the wall; his shoulders slumped in defeat. “I don’t get it. You’re shapeshifters. You should be able to conquer the universe. Take the form of demons and destroy all who oppose you.”

Faye swayed closer, her gaze boring into his. “To conquer as you suggest, we’d have to destroy ourselves first.”

“Innocence, a beggar’s inheritance, isn’t it?”

“I have often thought so…but in observing you and your friends, I have discovered new strength.”

Derik’s sneer was palpable through the blue glow. “Enlighten me.”

“Right makes might.”

A harsh buzzing warned of a visitor. The room fell into darkness and a soft whoosh blew across Derik’s face, alerting him to Faye’s transformation. What she had become, he would never know. Despite the heavy tread of boots, a harsh, white light that made him blink, and a harsher voice that grated on his ear, he stood transfixed by the soft touch of a wing in flight.

“I don’t believe in collective guilt, but I do believe in collective responsibility.”  ~Audrey Hepburn

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

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Eighteen

Two Hundred Years Ago

Bhuaci Planet Helm

Save Us If You Can

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Utter destruction.”

Faye shook her head.

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

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

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

“But, Mother! Father and…everyone!”

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

~~~

Present Day

Newearth

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

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

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

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

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

“And the governor?”

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

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

Faye snorted her disdain. “My current allies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Security is no replacement for liberty.   ~Martin Firrell  

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter 17, Part II

I Was Just Considering My Options

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

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

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

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

“Where?”

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

Derik stood frozen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derik blinked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derik rubbed her back, pressing her closer.

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

“What’re you thinking?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

“No greetings?”

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

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

Governor Right closed her eyes.

~~~

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

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

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

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

A figure strode forward.

Taug’s eyes narrowed at the daring approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taug’s guards melted into the throng.

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

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

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

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

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

Taug shrugged. “Which one which?”

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

“Lucky you.”

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

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

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

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

“Nothing like your paintings and Oldearth decor.”

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

“When you weren’t there, naturally.”

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

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

Justine spun around. “Collect you?”

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

“Your government—”

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

Justine stiffened. “My creator?”

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

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

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

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

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Seventeen, Part I

Miscalculation

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

The feline nudged back and meowed louder.

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

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

The cat sashayed behind.

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

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

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

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

“Immediately. It’s urgent.”

“And if I decide to wait till morning?”

“You won’t live to see the sunrise.”

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that would be?”

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. Who are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the illustrious governor?”

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

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

“Except for the unfortunate casualties.”

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a snarl, Derik fled the room.

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

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Sixteen

A Moral Choice

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

A voice responded, “Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

Clare rubbed her reddened eyes against his chest, mumbling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clare looked askance at Cerulean. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

“But you didn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justine rubbed her chin. “Why?”

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

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

“And Bala?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justine’s eyebrows returned to the up position.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bala hung his head. “Never mind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Fifteen

No Matter How Hard I Try

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that.”

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

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

“Too late.”

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

The baby wailed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bala turned. His mouth dropped open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bala muttered. “Why would—?”

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

Cerulean rubbed his forehead. “And did he?”

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

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

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

“A miracle?”

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

“Oh, Lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cerulean nodded.

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

Taug looked up.

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

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

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

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

Taug’s head lowered, pressing against his chest.

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

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

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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer II

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