Dana couldn’t stand still for a minute. Even perpetual motion machines of the world took notice.
I sat on the back steps letting a cool front work its magic. For the end of June, it was gorgeous. Cool sunny mornings, warm days with afternoon rainstorms, and blessedly chilly nights. “I wish this would last forever.”
Dana stopped pacing under the maple tree and stared at me. Glared really. But who am I to quibble? She had stayed longer than she intended, only because I threatened to get on my knees and beg.
“You’re okay without dad?”
I shook my head and tried to wave her comment into oblivion. “That’s not what I meant. I was talking about the weather.”
Her hands went to her hips. “It’s time we left. You’re not going to give us any trouble, right?”
Juan slipped out my bedroom door and stopped on the top porch step. I didn’t see him. But I didn’t need to. I knew the sound of my son’s footsteps as well as my own heartbeat.
I waited. Juan didn’t want to leave home. I knew that, but there was an unspoken understanding that he would go with Dana. He had to. She was going no matter what I said. But she couldn’t go alone. And I was hardly fit enough to traipse across an out-of-control country. I’d do better to keep the home fires burning. Literally.
I peered at Dana. She was the same woman who had driven to St. Louis weeks ago, but at the same time, she seemed so altered that I hardly felt comfortable in her presence. There was something she wasn’t telling me. And I was weary of not knowing—fighting off the horrors that raged in my mind. So, I countered with a question of my own, “You want to tell me about the aliens?” That threw her. I knew it would. The look that crossed her face when…
Into the Deep End
It was late by the time Ben left and the kids settled down for a good night’s rest before their adventure the next day.
To my everlasting gratitude, Ben offered to go with the kids. He didn’t start with that offer though. Ben is far wilier than I had realized. What comes across as boyish innocence masks a deceptively perceptive nature. He outfoxed Dana better than I ever could.
He spent the majority of the evening asking her advice, taking her lead. Even glancing her way when I suggested an early bedtime. Almost as if he and she had formed an inside club that knew better than color-in-the-lines-can’t-be-too-careful mom.
Juan sat back and luxuriated in someone else taking the burden of conversation off his shoulders. Though he did add texture to the stories, Ben got Dana to share details about their travels.
No one mentioned aliens.
I wished Ben had asked. For some reason, I thought he might be able to get away with that line of inquiry when it was clear, I’d be blown to smithereens for my efforts. Still, it was a great evening. A memory I could snuggle close to, comforting me through the ordeals ahead.
When I heard knocking on the kitchen door at six in the morning, I assumed it was Ben ready to roust the kids out of bed and hit the road for a fresh start before the sun climbed too high. I poured the last of the pancake batter into the frying pan and wiped my hands on a clean towel. “Coming, sir. Right in time for—”
Josh stared at me through eyes glossy with exhaustion, his body limp and his clothes filthy.
“Is he here?”
“Who? Ben? He’ll be coming along in a bit.”
Pushing past me, Josh stumbled into the house and landed on the kitchen bench, his whole body sagging. “No, Jared. Has he come by? Or said anything to you?”
I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the young man. Didn’t want to either. “No. Everything has been quiet here. Ben and the kids are heading out this morning—”
Josh wavered to his feet. “Don’t!”
I swallowed the fear lodging itself in my throat. “Why?”
This time the knock was followed by the door opening in quick succession. Ben swung into the room, his gaze locking on me. “You okay?” Footsteps pounded down the stairs, and Dana joined the coffee klatch though no coffee had been served yet, and I was as confused as…
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Amazingly, I lived through the next week and into the following week without falling into a heap of withered anxiety. If I had been a plant, I’m certain that my leaves would have turned brown and scattered to the four winds. As it happened, I turned out to be more resilient than I expected.
At first, I kept busy organizing my supplies. I grabbed my banking notebook, a hard-covered thing, and took a seriously honest inventory.
The cupboards weren’t bare, but they were hardly full either. I realized with chagrin how much food I threw away on a daily basis. In ordinary times, if we didn’t feel like leftovers, we gave them to the chickens. Oftentimes bones were given to the dog with plenty of meat still attached. And I had let milk spoil in the refrigerator more times than I could count. Suddenly, waste didn’t seem like a minor happenstance. It felt like a crime.
It wasn’t until nearly two full weeks had passed that I finally got word from Dana. Ben stopped by on that second rainy Wednesday morning with a satchel slung over his broad shoulders. He made his way inside the kitchen door after I had identified his unique, “Hey-ya!” and told him to come in.
His face looked older—lined with concern. His eyes a little sadder, like he has seen troubling things. More troubling than our small-town-techno-disconnect? I wasn’t sure.
But he forced a smile as he dug into his bag. “Feel a little like Santa delivering gifts to waiting families.” He pulled out a folded envelope. “Hope this helps.” Despite the grin, worry lined formed around his eyes. Gluttonously, I snatched it, tore the envelope open, and…
Living in Paradise?
I felt so proud of myself. One of the deadly sins, I know, so I should have surmised I was heading for trouble. By Thursday afternoon, I had cleaned the whole house, organized all the kitchen and downstairs storage shelves, written a complete inventory list, and even clipped the hedges so the house looked neat outside and as well as in.
By five in the afternoon, I was in a pleasant state of exhaustion and treated myself to a tall glass of sun tea. I sat relaxing before the garden under the grape arbor on the rickety old wooden swing, which was still servable if I didn’t sway too far.
The sound of a distant siren caught my ear. I remember thinking that it was in my imagination, a memory of some cop show where sirens blared across the cityscape. But this was rural countryside. A quiet backwoods world where police hardly bothered to flash their lights much less sound a siren. If one rolled up close behind, that was signal enough to pull over and find out if you’d surpassed the 30-mph speed limit. A definite no-no that earned a standard ticket and accompanying fine.
The siren continued unabated—no routine practice or alert for a single driver.
My heart began to pound.
I rose and glanced around. No smoke rising. I could safely assume no one’s house was on fire. An accident? A call for help?
I squinted at the falling sun. It was still bright, and I could easily traipse to town and see what was happening. But what good could I do? I’d more likely just get in the way.
Conflict tightening my stomach into knots, I paced back to the house with my empty glass in hand.
Josh jogged along the road.
I blinked and waved. “Hey, you heading to town?”
He nodded, slowing his pace but still moving forward. “Yeah. We arranged the siren as a signal for all able-bodied volunteers to meet up if something important happened.”
Not wanting to delay him, I waved him on. “Don’t let me slow you down. Just tell me what’s going on when you get a chance.”
He picked up speed. “Check on Linda, if you can. She’s not doing great.”
I called after him. “Sure thing!” Though checking on Linda was last on my list of want-to-dos. I really needed some solid food and a chance to gather my frightened wits. Oh, heck. Linda is probably chewing her fingers to the bone.
I ran inside, pulled a bowl of spiced pasta and tuna from the dark refrigerator, and speed-walked down the lane. Once at Linda’s house, I climbed the porch steps and knocked on the doorframe. “Hey, want to join me for dinner? I brought something tasty.”
Linda came to the door, her face red and blotched with the traces of tears still on her cheeks. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and forced a determined smile. “I’m not hungry, but I’m glad to see you.”
Completely unable to deal with her meltdown, but knowing that my only alternative was to trot home and have my own, I decided to forge ahead with my unwanted charity dinner. “Come on and try a bit. You need to keep your strength up.”
After setting two servings of my meager meal, I sat down opposite Linda at her kitchen table and tried to decide if I’d even attempt prayers before eating. What the heck. I made the sign of the cross and then halted when Linda burst into fresh tears.
“She died. Just like I thought she would.”
My heart jumped into my throat. “Who?”
“My mom. Got word last night. Some guy at the nursing home wrote—said that the folks are passing at an alarming rate. He can hardly keep up with notifications, much less burials. But, good news, she passed without pain or complaint.” Linda peered at me through narrowed eyes. “You don’t think someone is helping them to pass along, do you?”
“Oh, God! Why you’d think that? It’s probably just the shock and the lack of—well, everything. Medicines must be hard to come by and—” I didn’t know what else to say. Knowing that the at-risk population was succumbing for a whole range of very good reasons hardly made it more acceptable.
Linda stared at the tabletop, her eyes dry now, but her gaze unfocused. “I just don’t know what to think. It’s like evil has been loosed against everyone. I don’t know what terrible thing will happen next.” She sniffed and glanced up. “Do we deserve this?”
Dread rose like a monster inside me. I forced it down with the fact that Dana and Juan were due home in the next few days, and they would help us manage through our dark future. Thank Heaven for my kids. “So has Jared started home, yet?” A shout brought us to our feet. It sounded like…
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Home is where the heart is. But when the world fell apart, an alien race invaded, and my husband and children were in different locations, my heart dug deep into the home stead. If I couldn’t get to them, I’d hold fast, so they had home to return to…
No Place I’d Rather Be
I clasped a hot cup of coffee in my hands, stepped onto the back porch as the rising sun peeked between the flowering trees, and breathed deep. As if wishing me a good morning, sparrows, robins, blue jays, and a couple of cardinals fluttered about in springtime joy. I had a whole weekend to myself, and I planned to enjoy every peaceful minute of it.
There was no place else I’d rather be.
That has remained true, despite everything. Maybe because of everything. Perhaps some part of me knew what was coming, and I needed to savor every drop of beauty, glory, and strength to live beyond my small, about-to-combust, world.
Dana had left for her new job in St. Louis the previous Sunday afternoon. It was a great opportunity for her. And she knew it. I knew it too. Somewhere deep inside.
“Mom, please don’t dribble your despondency all over my clean car.”
Her dad, Liam—aka my beloved—grinned like the besotted fool he was.
The kid got her sarcasm from me, so I could hardly complain. Though I did scrunch my eyes, stomp my feet, and pantomime a child having a conniption fit.
Dana laughed. A loud bark that set our hounds into howls.
Her car, stuffed with two kitchen chairs, bedding, the last of her clothing, enough comfort food to get her through the first week, and a miraculous medal and prayerbook she didn’t know about tucked into the glove compartment, announced her readiness to fly from the proverbial nest.
She came around the front fender and wrapped me in a big hug. Dana was never small. Even as a baby, she came into the world larger than life, thrashing and screaming, her black hair wild, making her look bigger and badder than she really was.
I hugged her back with every ounce of my fifty-year-old strength.
When her car turned at the end of the lane, I stopped waving and wiped tears from my eyes. Liam held my hand all the way up the front steps.
Juan, my broad shouldered, eighteen-year-old, sunshine child, brought into my life by two miracles—his birthmother’s big heart and my husband’s absolute trust—bounded down the back porch steps on Thursday afternoon with the abandon of a guy ready for an early weekend.
I reminded him of dinner. “I’ve got a roast chicken and an apple cobbler nearly ready.”
An apologetic shrug. “I’m heading out—gonna go camping with a few friends.”
“It’s April!” I thought that explained everything well enough.
Not according to Juan’s logic. “Hey, ma, I’ve worked hard. The guys and I want to get away for a bit, think things over before our next big move.”
I scratched my head. “By move, you mean summer work, right?”
Crossing my arms, I shot one over the bow. “You ask dad?”
“He said go have a good time.” Juan squinted in his playful way. “I think he’d like to get out his corporate meeting and come with us instead.”
If I was perfectly honest, I’d rather Liam head to the wilds of Alaska than the L. A. madness that was his corporate headquarters. But mine was not to reason why…
It was only after Juan had roared his car down the road that it dawned on me. He took no clothes, no bedding, no tent. Camping? My eye.
I sighed as I headed back to the house and faced the roasted chicken that I knew my husband wouldn’t eat.
By Friday morning, Liam was a mess. He hated traveling. He loathed meetings. He despised corporations. How he managed to rise so high in the tech field is one of the mysteries of life. I forgave him for the third time for picking my beautiful dinner to pieces, knocking the Easter Lilly off the shelf, and nearly shutting the car door on my hand in his haste to get to the airport on time.
“If they try to drag me to one of their get-togethers, I’ll tell them I have a fever and—”
“Say you’re sick, and you’ll have the entire place hyperventilating. Just say you have work to do. They’ll respect that.”
“They’ll laugh and try to set me up with drinks and dates.”
I glared out of the corner of my eye.
He kept his eyes on the road.
“You ever consider starting your own multi-million-dollar business and work from home?”
Such a bark, I could almost hear the dogs howl though they were miles away back on the homestead. “I know where Dana gets it.”
“That laugh. It sounds like a bark.”
For the first time in three days, Liam smiled. “It’s not a bark. It’s a hoot.”
“You’re a hoot.” I smiled back, kissed him at the visitor parking lot, and kept it plastered on all the way along highway seventy till I reached home.
Saturday morning, I rose early, poured myself a cup of hot coffee, traipsed onto my bedroom porch and breathed deep without an inkling that the world as I knew it was about to end.
Even the Birds Stopped Singing
After dressing in jean shorts and a tunic top, I enjoyed coffee and a robust breakfast of eggs and toast. Fortified, I ran downstairs and tossed in a load of laundry. Then I scurried back upstairs and wondered why I was in such a hurry. With a reminder to take it easy, I grabbed another cup of coffee and meandered to the roll-top desk in my studio. Like a lady of leisure, I scrolled through my emails and social media.
When the internet flickered off and on around ten o’clock, I didn’t think anything of it. We live in farm country, so wild critters sometimes make a bad life decision and interfere with the lines, or storms miles away can interrupt service. I glanced outside. No storm. A perfect sunny May first. I shivered for the critter that may have suffered an untimely death.
When my phone chimed from the kitchen counter an hour later, I had just kneaded the last bit of dough for my weekly bread making and lined up the greased bread pans. My fingers, covered in sticky goo, weren’t suited for a technological device at the moment. So, I used my elbow and managed to make the connection.
My sister, Sarah huffed her words. Must’ve been running, I figured.
“Hey, Kiddo, did your power go off this morning?”
I slapped on the tap water and rinsed my fingers, talking over my shoulder. “Just for a sec.” I scowled at the trickle dribbling over my hands. The water pressure was down. Deep inward sigh. Water pressure meant a lot to me. How was I going to take my bed-time shower?
“But it’s back on, right?”
The proverbial light bulb clicked on. Power outage and loss of water pressure. Oh, yeah. Made sense. I peered at the ceiling. The light wasn’t on. I glanced to the counter. Nor was the coffee maker. But, silly me, they shouldn’t be. It was bright and sunny and I’d cleaned the coffee maker after my second cup. I glanced at the stove. The clock showed the time, but only dimly.
“Hmm…it came back on but—” I ran and flipped the light switch with my wet hand.
My sister broke through. “Hey, I’ve got another call. It’s Bill. Poor guy had to work over the weekend. Better go.”
I listened to the click as she hung up, but my eyes stayed fixed to the ceiling. Brown light. Not the bright glare I was used to.
A sound in the distance caught my ear. Horns? Who on earth would be blowing their horn out here? We lived on a dead-end lane and there wasn’t any traffic even during planting season.
“Oh, God!” It was an accident. I was sure of it.
But just as suddenly, it stopped. All noise stopped. Even the birds stopped singing. Complete silence.
If you’ve ever been suddenly thrust into the pitch black, you know how disorientating that can be. Well, the same was true when all sound stopped. It was as if the whole world was holding its breath. The moment after a collective gasp.
Zuri stomped forward, Melchior’s house silhouetted against the late afternoon sunlight behind, and grabbed the Cresta by his bio-suit. “Where is she?”
A line of sweat dripping from the side of his face, his golden eyes red-rimmed, and his suit smeared with road dirt, Tarragon reared back. “Don’t handle me!”
Abashed at his impetuous move, Zuri clamped down his anger, dropped his hands, and tried to form coherent words. “Where is my daughter?”
Brushing imaginary dirt off his front, Tarragon shrugged. “How should I know? She was playing servant girl with Sterling and that Luxonian boy last I saw.”
A group of men tromped out of Melchior’s front door and pounded down the steps. In boisterous conversation, they headed toward the stables.
Zuri motioned Tarragon around the far side of a shed. The scent of dried hay drifted into his nose, making him sneeze. He clapped his hand over his face, muffling the sound.
Tarragon snorted. “And you complain about my native sensitivity? At least I can control my bodily functions.”
Wiping his face with his arm, Zuri glared at the rotund Cresta. “So, she was all right when you saw her?”
“She was fine.”
“I don’t understand. She hasn’t answered one of my messages.”
With an elegant eye-roll, Tarragon started toward Selby’s old shed. “We can discuss matters in there. Knowing how superstitious these people are, they probably won’t use it again for a long time.”
Striding at the Cresta’s side, Zuri paced along, his anxiety settling into mild concern. “They’re going to burn it down tomorrow.”
Tarragon ducked his head as he entered the front doorway. “We have it for tonight then.” He stretched and sighed, staring longingly at the bed. “I have endured much to find you.”
Alert again, Zuri kept his gaze fixed on the Cresta. “What?” Alarm spread through him. “You said that Nova was fine!”
“She is.” Tarragon flopped down on the rickety bed. “But Mauve will never be the same.”
“Mauve? I thought she was at the Widow’s place.”
“She was. Until she got a little too inquisitive and discovered the Mystery aliens playing fools in front of everyone.”
“She found them?”
“And they, or he—the younger one—found her annoying. She was rather. But still. He took justice a tad far, me thinks.”
His heart pounding, Zuri stepped further into the dim interior, wishing he still had night vision. “Where is Mauve now?”
“Shattered to pieces on the rocky coast. Not a chance she can be put together again. I checked.”
Caught off guard by the violent image, Zuri fell back and sat down hard on a stool. “She’s dead, then?”
“Even a Luxonian couldn’t fix her. After an embarrassing incident, she planned to take revenge, so I followed and watched her saunter up to the Mystery-boy on the edge of the cliff. They chatted a few moments, but even from that distance, I could see; he wasn’t the fool she was. Poof! She was turned to a statue, and he nudged her over the cliff. People say Crestonians are cold! This was positively artic.”
“Oh, God, what about Sterling?” Blood rushing to his ears, a faint dizziness swirled the room. “If they are that dangerous, we need to get off the planet. We must get the children!”
“Calm yourself, Ingot. I don’t believe that the Mystery being meant any harm. He simply wanted to remove Mauve’s annoying presence. She planned to kidnap him; you know. Maybe he was just protecting himself. In any case, they haven’t injured anyone since we’ve been here, but they could have long ago. And they did try to warn her; she just wouldn’t listen.”
Exhausted but more determined than ever, Zuri pulled out his datapad and tapped it to life. “Start from the beginning, from when you first met Mauve, and tell me what happened. As soon as we have this on record, we’re heading to the widow’s castle to get Sterling and the kids.”
Tarragon waved a tentacle in the air. “I’ll make the report, don’t worry. But we’re not going anywhere. Everyone is heading here. All we have to do is wait for the family reunion.”
Teal braced himself as Kelesta sat on the edge of his bed and scooped strawberry ice cream from the bowl. She held the spoon invitingly before his face.
Teal waved it away. “I’m not hungry.”
“You need to eat.”
“No, I don’t.”
“All right, you don’t, but it would be good for you, anyway. You’re not going to get over your depression until you start inviting cheer into your life. And there is nothing more cheerful than strawberry ice cream.”
Teal stared at her.
Kelesta laid the bowl aside and rose. She stepped to the window and lifted the white curtain aside, peering into the distance.
The sound of surf rolling on shore repeated in rhythmic rounds as two birds flew across the sky.
Teal tossed back the sheet covering his body and then, as embarrassment flooded him, shrank back. “Where are my clothes?”
Kelesta padded to a shelf, pulled rolled up pants and a shirt in to her arms and carried them to the bed. She placed them next to him and strolled back to the window.
Discombobulated by his unaccustomed blushing reaction, Teal unrolled the baggy cotton pants and tugged them on. Then he pulled the matching cream-colored shirt over his head. With a deep breath, he steadied himself and paced to at the window. “Thank you.” He glanced aside, startled at the somber look in her eyes. “For everything.” He shrugged. “I’m not a very good patient, I’m afraid. Not used to being taken care of.”
“You’re a parent. Being helpless isn’t comfortable.”
Teal pressed her arm. “Nova will be all right. Zuri knows what he’s doing.”
Kelesta shook her head. “We’re past our time—Nova will have to take care of herself soon.”
Teal swung aside, facing her more directly. “What does that mean? You have countless ages ahead of you.”
Kelesta gripped the window frame, the breeze blowing tendrils of hair off her face. “There is a price for everything. Zuri refused his neural transplants, all the attachments, for too long to turn back. I took on human form to have a child—and it has cost much.”
Tears stung Teal’s eyes. “But Song, surely she can help you—like she helped me.”
Her lips wavering, Kelesta met his gaze. “Song revived you. She can’t cure you.”
Taking his hand she led the way to the door, the rolling ocean waves, and bright sunshine.
Teal let himself be drawn along and understood, for the first time, what death really meant.
Omega picked up a slimy piece of broken clay from the foamy sea waves and stared at it. A strong wind blew over him, tossing his hair into his eyes. He picked up another piece and placed their jagged edges side by side. They didn’t fit together at all.
On impulse, he waved and a cloth bag suddenly hung limp in his hand. With a swift motion, the clay fragments floated out of the water and he opened the mouth of the bag, scooping in pieces, like a net capturing fish from the sea.
Once the bag was full, he splashed ashore and dashed up the trail.
In a quiet corner of the courtyard, he spread the broken pieces in the sun and laid them flat. He chewed his lip, perplexed. What to do next? He had never had to do anything like this before, and he wasn’t sure how to start.
“What you’ve got there?” A burly soldier tromped forward and stared over Omega’s crouched figure. “Oh, you broke something, eh?” He whistled low. “No putting that back together son. It’s ruined, see.”
He patted Omega’s shoulder. “Best to man up and face the wrath of the owner than try to hide the mess out here. She’ll figure it out eventually.”
Further disorientated but hopeful for some direction, Omega shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun and squinted at the older man. “How do you know I can’t put her back together?”
A snort and a chuckle accompanied the man’s grin. “It’s clay, young fool. Clay dissolves in the water—salt water most assuredly. I’ve never been so partial to a vessel that I called it a she, but my captain and I loved our ship; she was a beauty in our eyes.”
With a shake of his head, Omega rose to his feet.
Abbas marched across the hard ground with a stern look in his eye.
“My father is coming; I best meet him.” He scattered the clay pieces.
The soldier turned and faced the white-haired man coming his way. His face crunched in concentration. “Ah, you be the fool that entertained us. I only got to see you once—duty calls at unfortunate moments.” He smiled as Abbas stopped before him. “Good evening.”
Abbas offered a quick nod of acknowledgement and then stared at his son. “Where have you been?”
The soldier lifted his hand like a benevolent referee. “Don’t be too hard on him. Been trying this long while to put the thing back together, but it’s a lost cause; he knows now. So, he’ll pay restitution and be done with the fear and guilt of it.”
With an obvious swallow, Abbas choked out his question. “What did you break, son?”
His jaw clenched; Abbas gripped Omega’s arm as he nodded a polite good-bye to the warrior.
Omega trotted at his father’s side across the battered earth. “Where are we going?”
“To join the others—and away from here.”
“You don’t mind about Mauve? She was being annoying.”
Abbas dragged his son into the shelter of a dark corner and shook him by the shoulders. “You have no idea what you’ve done!”
Grieved by his father’s fury, Omega whined, “But I tried to put her back together.”
“If you thought putting her together was hard, you have no idea what you’ve just shattered. Our whole existence is based on absolute secrecy. You can be sure now, that not only are we known, we are hated.”
As if he had just tasted something very bad, Omega wrinkled his nose. Hated? What did that even mean?
Sitting in a relatively quiet room—the birds are chirping outside, the downstairs refrigerator is rattling, and the drier is whirling about—I alternate my gaze from myriad unfinished projects to pictures and paintings covering the walls to the well-tended jungle growing just beyond my porch.
In a conversation with a friend today, we shared the compactness of every waking hour. So much happens that our brains jump the tracks at little things. Even attempting to drive a well-known path suddenly seems like wandering among a menagerie of hidden influences.
It’s when we slip into habitual actions that images, memories, shoved aside I-will-deal-with-it-later emotional sucker punches leap in for the kill.
Don’t get me wrong. I love our wide and wild, varied, and far-reaching world. I even love texting. Especially the sheer fun of sending a string of ridiculous emojis. But the benefit of instant communication is the inherent danger of instant communication. So much. So fast.
My eldest brother, who—like me—remembers the days of landlines, snail-mail, and when there was such a reality as “long-distance” shared that he has to leave his phone in another room because the constant notice pings were getting too much for his nerves.
My daughter told me the other day that we humans have figured out how to grow meat in vats. Not from animals, mind you, just from cells of animals—replicated. Like something off of Star Trek. She was thrilled with the idea. “Think about it—real meat but no suffering animals!”
And a couple of young friends asked my advice on out how to get married with God as their witness without involving religion, since the religions they’ve experienced have been severely disappointing.
What do the last few examples have in common? They all happened when I was too busy to think about what they meant to me. My thoughts tumble over each other trying to sort out whether I am worried about meat vats getting married long distance without any religious affiliation.
So much needs to be tended to in a day. Like breathing in humid air that could smother a hippopotamus, formatting a Spanish version of one of my books, sending a goodies box to my dad, walking the dog despite attacking insects, answering multitudinous emails, viewing social media, checking the weather app in a vain expectation that it will now announce a cool front, and figuring out how on earth to get the chickens to quit laying on the porch steps.
When the sun finally decides to have mercy on my soul and hits the horizon, I’m weary, body and soul.
Unlike my November break from social media, I’ve decided, once again, to reign in the forces that play tug-of-war with my life without cutting anything off completely. Priorities matter. Sticking to those priorities may keep me sane. So, I don’t have to break away, so much as choose how I will spend my time, engage my mind, and grow my soul.
Herman perched his glasses on his nose, stared at the bottle of bathroom cleaner with the foamy suds on the label, and swerved his gaze to his beloved dog—the one giving him the mopey What-did-I-Do-To-Deserve-This? look—and realized his mistake.
It wasn’t the first time.
The week before, he had brushed his teeth with Icy-Hot, and the week before that he had poured half a bottle of liquid detergent down the drain thinking he was unclogging the sink. The fact that the dishes had smelled “springtime fresh” hadn’t helped in the least. The sink remained clogged until the plumber sent his snake coil five miles through underground terrain.
Each morning, when the news informed him that a new plague or disasters unlimited loomed, he figured that this was as good a time as any to make out a will. Dying was all too easy. It was living that made each day a challenge.
And so, when he met Chuck, he tried not to act surprised. Chuck looked perfect. He acted perfect. Up until the moment he froze in place. That wasn’t so perfect. Not the way he did it. Stock still. His hand caught in mid-air, holding the test tube just so. His eyes staring, blank, but as wide and as blue as ever.
After the last major world alteration—pandemic, economic crisis, collective emotional meltdown—whatever you want to call it, The University had decided that “State of the Art Androids” would assist human teachers in their laboratory work. No matter if the world was going to hell-in-a-hand-basket, students still needed the opportunity to practice medical procedures, carry out chemical experiments, and do a thousand things that simply could not be managed from home.
Reasonable? Of course.
Considering his record of late, Herman wasn’t surprised when his Department Head informed him that a new assistant, Chuck, would aide him as he maneuvered the entire scientific student body through the semester. To stiffen his spine, Herman reminded himself that his dog had recovered nicely and water ran through his sink lickity-split these days, with a refreshing scent to boot.
He spent the entire weekend before Chuck’s arrival assuring himself that an assistant meant more free time to do his own research. A positive step in the right direction. An honor! And NO risk.
When autumn rolled around and the school doors finally creaked open, Chuck calculated formulas, measured chemicals, laid out lab materials, and never broke anything. Never got mixed up. Never forgot which student he was dealing with or which experiment they were doing. Though his pronunciation did need a little work. Good thing scientists rarely giggle.
But last Wednesday, Chuck had a few internal issues, not gastric of course, just something a little off. He bumped Herman twice as they crossed paths in the lab, and he actually scowled at Lacy, the brightest student in the whole school, who had the unfortunate luck to break her arm. Chuck didn’t slow down for bumbling humans and didn’t smile at imperfections.
Lacy’s attempt at humor as she held up her sling-shod arm collided with Chuck’s long cold stare.
Herman glanced at Lacy; tears filled her eyes.
He had suspected for months that her heart had been beating a little faster whenever Chuck was in the room…but this kind of workplace awkwardness he had never imagined. Made soaping the dog with the wrong kind of suds seem almost funny.
What to do? It wasn’t like he could call Herman out for his icy demeanor, his lack of empathy, his calculated perfection.
But on Friday, Chuck stalled. Positively and undeniably froze in place.
Herman called the proper authorities. Nodded sympathetically when the Head of the Department broke down sobbing. Chuck had been a prototype. “A first, damn it! But not the last!” The Head Man had lifted his chin and thrown a determined glare directly at Lacy. As if her human indelicacy had pushed Chuck’s tightly wound synaptic system over the proverbial bridge.
After two men with a squeaky dolly wheeled Chuck away, Herman shrugged and considered the lab. Test tubes, beakers, Bunsen burners, metal trays, and laptops—various tools of the trade—and one lonely shrub decorated the sterile white room.
A crash and Herman knew in his heart-of-hearts that there was one less test tube.
He blinked at Lacy. A tear slid down her face.
He padded softly to her side and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.
She leaned in and sighed. “I can’t help it. I make mistakes.”
For the first time in months, Herman felt hope for the human race.
Sydney knew he faced mission impossible, but he had to try. She’d never be a fully functioning human being until she joined the ranks of millions—no billions—who had gone before her and embraced the brave new world.
He felt the gravel crunch under his tires as he turned into the driveway. The back gate was closed, which meant that the goat was probably in the barn, safe and sound, thank God. He’d spent the entire weekend either catching up on house repairs, work reports, or alternating with his wife at one of the kid’s weekend games. What idiot scheduled soccer practice twice a week and games on Sunday?
He took the key out of the ignition. Four o’clock. He might as well get this over with. Mom and dad ate a formal dinner at noon and a light supper at six. Promptly. He hardly wanted to try squeezing the whole technological world in between the early news and grilled cheese & tuna sandwiches.
But try he must. He grabbed the Kindle from the passenger seat and lumbered from the car, huffing with the exertion. Darn, but he should’ve had another cup of coffee before coming. He felt in his pockets. A handful of chocolate-covered coffee beans ought to do the trick.
Munching, he climbed the steps up to the porch and pressed open the door with a “Hey, anyone home?”
As if she didn’t expect to see me. Hah! Sydney felt a rush of guilt. For what, he wasn’t sure and wouldn’t stop to think about it. Roll away, guilt. Just roll away.
“Hey, mom.” The hug. The warm kitchen. The sense that nothing ever changed. Though she was a bit older. Moved slower as she crossed the room. “Dad here?”
“Oh, he’s out back with the dogs. Taking care of one of the Kerns’ pups. It got injured, and he’s nursing it back to health.”
“Nice of him. Never could say no.”
His mom shook her head, smiling the way she always did. “Why would he? He likes dogs. You know that.” She peered at her son.
Sydney felt like he time-warped back to yesterday’s airport security. What a horrible flight. The baby crying, the guy snoring, the storm clouds looming.
“You okay, son?”
Sydney shook himself. “Sure.” He laid the Kindle on the counter. I brought it like I said I would.
A combination of fear and distaste flickered over his mom’s seventy-year-old face. “That was nice of you. But I don’t really need it. I’ve got two library cards and that flip phone you gave me last year.”
“But, mom, this is so much easier. You won’t have to get out in the weather to go to the library. Books come to you. Right here. In your hands.” He lifted the Kindle like a car salesman showing off his latest option. He shrugged the image away.
With a long sigh, his mom picked up a long-handled spoon and stirred a pot bubbling on the stove. “I made chili—used up the last of the frozen, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. I even tossed in a can of homemade salsa for zest. We’ve got enough hamburger to last into May, but dad says he’s gonna butcher that old cow. She’s never recovered since the fall she had, and he figures she’d be enough to give you and Heidi some and still last us until next year.”
Sydney pictured the last package of hamburger he bought at the store—unnaturally red and outrageously priced. Had a strange taste too. “Well, I never say no to your food. The kids love your cooking more than me, I think.”
“Oh, honey. Don’t be silly. It’s just that we spent so much time with them when they were little.” A wistful expression spread over her eyes. “It’s good that they’re involved in so many activities now, but I hope they won’t forget grandma and grandpa…”
As if he could stop a knife twisting his innards, Sydney clutched the Kindle harder. “Well, let’s get down to business, shall we?”
A defeated damsel, his mom laid the spoon aside, pulled out a wooden kitchen chair and sat down. “You can show me, but I can’t promise I’ll remember…”
“Just try, ma. It’s all I ask. Do it for me. This way I don’t have to worry about you going out in all kinds of weather just to get to the library. Or doing so many things you don’t have to do. There are more than books on here. You can get music and movies. You can look up—”
Like a zealot cajoling a wayward member of the flock back into the fold, Sydney showed off the cyber universe with finesse and confidence.
The back door slammed. Dad strode in, slightly bent, but grinning from ear to ear. “Got that pup fed, its leg splintered, and now she’s sprawled out with the hounds like she’s never known any different.”
Looking up like a drowning woman begging for a lifeline, his mom stared at her husband through a plastered smile. “Look what Sydney brought us.”
Discomfort sent prickles over Sydney’s spine. “Oh, dad don’t care about this stuff. He’s told me so a hundred times.”
With a snort, his dad splashed his hands under the tap, scrubbed vigorously with soap, then rinsed and dried like a professional hand washer. He sniffed the chili, hobbled to his chair, and plunked down with a happy sigh. “You make it sound like I hate what you do, son. I don’t hate it.”
“You’ve never taken any interest in it, that’s for sure. Every time I try to show you what I do for a living, you turn away. Or say you don’t understand. When I know you could—if you wanted to.”
Dad and mom exchanged a quick glance, understanding each other in a way that strangled Sydney’s heart.
Sydney closed the Kindle. Defeat weighed a couple of tons at least. Mission impossible. I knew it.
Nudging him in the shoulder, his dad offered an encouraging smile. “You’re not listening, son. I appreciate what you do. You’re technology skills amaze me. Your mom and I are very proud of you. We just have better things to do than join in on everything.”
“Join in? What are you talking about? I’m just offering a Kindle devise so she can get—”
Mom placed her hand over Sydney’s and patted with maternal tenderness. “I like to go to the library. My friends are there. We chat and share what we’re reading, tell about things going on in town, the latest news. Last week when I wanted a new way to fix venison, Jan found a great recipe online. She even identified that weird bug your dad found in the woodpile the other day from some etymologist in India.”
She gazed into her memory. “Interesting man. Wish India were’ so darn far away.” She glanced at her husband and once again they agreed in a silent conversation. “Your dad got his email address and is thinking of writing and asking how the bug managed to find its way into our backyard.”
Sydney swallowed. “You’ve been on the web?”
Bernie grinned, leaning back against the sink, one brown gnarled hand propped on the counter. “Of course. We’re not Neanderthals. We just don’t want to get all caught up in that stuff. It’s fine now and again. But when Jill and the kids come over, they spend more time looking at their phones than talking with us. It’s like they can’t put the things down for even a minute.” He shrugged. “Your mom and I have other things we like to do with our time.” A twinkle entered his eyes as he met his wife’s gaze.
A shocking, mischievous spark danced from husband to wife. Thankfully, mom recovered quickly and swung her full attention to her son.
“You understand?” Mom’s eyes pleaded.
Sydney heaved his body from the table. “So you don’t want this?”
“It’s just—we’d rather not be tempted.” Dad clapped his hands together. “Now when are we going to have that chili? I’m as hungry as a bear after a long winter.”
Mom hopped up and flipped open the cabinet. She grabbed bowls and charged into the utensil drawer, gunning for action, “Can you stay and have some, Sweetheart? I’ve got garlic bread warming in the oven.”
Sydney pictured the scene at his home. His kids would each be in their room staring at their computers…or Kindles. Jill would be slouched on the couch—maybe playing a game or binge-watching her latest TV obsession. He’d walk in, say hi, no one would respond. He’d go to his room and turn on his computer.
He peered down at the eager, alive faces of his parents and sat back down.
Jeremy Quinn shoved his dinner tray aside and leaned back on a metal chair, a petulant scowl pressing his eyebrows into a v-formation. He glowered at the steel-gray mess hall of Bothmal Prison. Rotating his jaw, he swallowed his last distasteful bite of dinner.
A man about his age, but taller and thinner, wearing the same standard blue guard uniform, ambled up and pulled out a chair opposite Quinn while balancing a dinner tray.
Quinn cleared his throat.
The thin man glanced up. “You mind?”
Quinn nudged the chair out with the toe of his steel-tipped boot, his jaw still working in a circular motion. “Not much.”
Thrusting his hand out and accompanied by a stiff smile, the man leaned forward. “Name’s Scott. Nice to meet you. Just started yesterday.”
Quinn’s eyes traveled over the angular, dark-haired man. His nose wrinkled. He could smell fear a kilometer away. “It’ll feel like you’ve been here an eon by the end of the week.”
Undeterred, Scott sat and laid out his dinner—fork on the left, knife on the right, a cup of steaming coffee upper right, salad upper left, a plate of synth-meat and vegetables front and center, fruit cup lower left, napkin unfolded neatly in his lap.
Quinn’s jaw dropped as his eyes followed every precise movement of his tablemate. “By the Divide, you dining with the Luxonian Supreme Council or something?”
With a self-deprecating shrug, Scott dug into his meal with relish. He chewed slowly, carefully, his gaze surveying the room with the hint of a smile. Swallowing, he positioned himself for another foray; his gaze merely glanced off Quinn. “Pigs eat at a trough; humans should reflect their higher status.”
Quinn rolled his eyes.
Two guards dropped their trays in a recycle bin that sucked everything down a shoot with a swish. They placed their hands against the print identifier, and when the door slid open, they shuffled over the threshold.
Quinn leaned forward, his elbows braced on the table. “The only difference between us and the animals locked in cages around here is the color of our uniform—and the fact that we haven’t been caught yet.”
Scott methodically chewed another bite, swallowed, and pointed his fork at Quinn. “Speak for yourself.”
Running his fingers through his short hair, Quinn tilted his head. “You’re from Lux, right?”
“Born and bred. Second generation. Though my parents have a huge OldEarth sanctuary on—”
Quinn knocked his empty cup aside. “My family was run off Lux with barely the clothes on their backs during the Crestonian Crisis. Said we were a threat to planetary security.” Taking a more relaxed pose, Quinn laced his fingers behind his head. “They feared us. Humans were getting too numerous, so—”
Scott laid his fork aside and took a sip of his coffee. “Our family was large, my Uncle George has thirteen kids. In fact, they encouraged—”
“Who’d he work for?”
Scott dug into the fruit salad. “Bio-engineering Dep—”
“Oh, sure, yeah! Bio-engineers can do anything!” Quinn lowered his voice and leaned in further. “Listen, newbie, Bothmal doesn’t give a—”
A red light flashed over the door accompanied by a repeated buzzing sound.
Quinn frowned and rose to his feet. “Bothmal belongs to the strongest—not the smartest.” His gaze swiveled around the empty room. “You’re not on Lux. Remember that.”
The door slid open and a Crestonian wearing prisoner’s garb hustled in. He leaned against the door, huffing, and eyed Quinn and Scott. Rotating a long metal object in two tentacles, he straightened up.
Quinn stepped to Scott’s side and nudged him shoulder-to-shoulder, speaking out of the side of his mouth. “Crestonians are ingenious at fashioning weapons outta garbage. Ironic, eh?”
Scott held up his hands. “Maybe I can talk him down. He’s gonna get killed if he tries anything.”
Quinn’s eyes gleamed. “Oh, he’s dead alright. No question about that.” He shoved Scott ahead. “You talk to him. I’ll be right back.”
Scott glared at Quinn’s retreating back, then turned and faced the prisoner, one hand sliding to his sidearm. “Listen, I’m new here, but I know every rule on record, and I want us both to get out of this room alive, okay? If you just hand over the weapon, I promise—”
The door opened, Quinn charged through, and tackled the Crestionian from behind, knocking him down. They rolled across the floor with Scott pulling out his Dustbuster, edging up and backing away, as the two opponents grappled across the room and into the airy, institutional kitchen. A wall hole labeled “Recycle Your Refuse” glowed in neon letters on the wall. Jabbing his Dustbuster under the Crestoniona’s chin, Quinn dragged the prisoner to the opening.
The Crestonian struggled frantically, trying to get his skewer against Quinn’s midsection.
Scott dashed in and held his Dustbuster against the Crestonian’s head and shouted at Quinn. “Enough! We got him.”
Quinn braced himself, and with a mighty shove, he leaned the Crestonian against the hole and fired. What was left of the body was instantly suctioned into the hole.
Scott fell against the wall and stared open-mouthed at Quinn. “What the—?” He waved his Dustbuster in the air. “We had him. He knew it! We could’ve ended this without—”
Quinn, gulping deep breaths of air, grinned like a child winning a game. “Look at the sign, idiot.”
Scott pushed off the wall, his eyes wide with fury. “He was a prisoner. He wasn’t sentenced to death by the court! What gives you the right—?”
Quinn shook his head as he straightened up and swaggered back to the mess hall.
Four guards rushed in with Dustbusters at the ready. The lead man stared at Quinn. “We thought you were dead! Somehow that freak managed to cut the monitors.” His eyes roved the room. “Where—?”
Quinn chuckled. “He’s being recycled. More useful this way.” He tucked his Dustbuster away as the other guards relaxed with relieved smiles spreading across their faces.
Scott stood with his Dustbuster dangling at his side, glaring at Quinn.
With a shrug, Quinn turned and met Scott in the middle of the room. He leaned in and whispered. “Never let an opportunity slip by.” Putting an arm around Scott’s shoulder, he walked him back to their table. “Since I saved your midsection, you can clean up.” He patted Scott on the shoulder and then started toward the door. “Oh, and not a word. Remember, the only difference between them and us is the color of our uniform.”
The door slid shut. Scott plopped down on his chair and shoved his dinner tray away.
“Sir? You need to wake up now, sir.” The white, uniformed human shook Max’s shoulder. He focused and tried to make sense of what he was seeing. A woman stood over him and peered intently into his face. Max turned away. He did not feel well. Not well at all. And wasn’t that rather odd?
He closed his eyes and tried to remember. What happened? Ah, yes, Ingot thugs, mercenaries who preyed upon unwary merchants burst aboard ship and caught him just as he was transferring his data to another guard. An unlucky moment. Surely, it had been planned. But who could have known? Abanaber? He was new and seemed eager enough, but then, he disappeared once the fighting started.
Max sighed. He remembered facing the lead Ingot, a thin, sharp little being. He didn’t want to have to kill him, so he raised one hand and offered—nothing. He looked down and his leg was gone. No pain. No horror. Just falling, sliding to the floor, and the Ingot standing over him, chuckling.
He blinked open his eyes.
The nurse was still there, still peering. Her brown eyes were crinkled at the edges. She was pretty, neat with short, stylishly cut hair, over fifty, and worried. Very worried.
“Sir? I need you to sit up so I can make a proper assessment. Can you do that?”
Keeping his face as neutral as possible, Max raised his upper body, expecting to list to the right since one leg was gone. But he didn’t. He scowled at the end of the bed and the outlined forms of two legs lay there in front of him. He carefully lifted the sheet that covered his lower half. Yep. Two legs. He peered up at the nurse, one eyebrow raised.
She beamed. “Yes, we managed to save it. You were nearly dead when they brought you in. Honestly, I never saw—but never mind. You pulled through, that’s all that matters, right? Now, I just need to take your vitals. You can lean back against these pillows—”
She pummeled a couple of pillows into submission and then, with a gentle shove; she pushed him back, still beaming. “There now. Feel better?”
Max opened his mouth but closed it promptly. What could he say? Did he feel better? He did not feel well. But was that better than how he had felt? How had he felt? Blinking, he realized that his head ached. He touched his head and tapped around. It did not feel like his head. It was bumpy and hard with no hair. His eyes widened as his gaze darted to the nurse’s face.
She stared at an instrument panel; worry crinkles around her eyes again. “Yes, your—skull—was damaged, but we were able to replace the missing part.” She glanced at him and patted his arm, a confident smile replacing the worry. “And your brain is completely intact.”
Max shook his head. “I thought my leg was blown off. I had no idea—”
The nurse tapped a console and raised her finger for momentary silence.
She tapped the last time and turned to face him, offering her complete attention. “No, your leg was damaged, but it was your head that received the worst of the blast. You can thank Captain Kimberling that he got you here in time, or we may not have been able to save you. Your friend, Mr. Abanaber, has asked about you every day—for weeks.”
Max bolted straight up. “Weeks? How long have I been unconscious?”
The nurse glanced at the console. “Exactly three Lunar cycles. I honestly didn’t expect you to do anything this different this morning. I’m so glad you woke up. Doctor Mangham will be here momentarily.” The nurse adjusted a tray near the table with studious concentration. “She wrote up a review about you for a prominent scientific journal. You’re the first android she ever worked on. And such an—”
Max shook his head. “But my leg was blown off. The Captain was taken and Abanaber was nowhere to be found—”
The nurse titled her head and smiled indulgently. “You were just dreaming. A nightmare, I’m sure. After all, it was a serious explosion. Stupid accident. Someone didn’t pack their materials properly, and then you came too close with your magnetic—”
Max almost rose from the bed, but a sharp pain forced him to freeze. Holding his head in his hands, he moaned. “I can’t dream. I’m an android; I—”
The nurse chuckled. “Well, maybe you were an android once. Not anymore. At least not completely. I saw the scans. The doctors were amazed. They wanted to do further studies, but of course, they needed your consent. It was Kelly who saved your life, really. She was the assistant on the scene. When the emergency team realized you were an android, they were going to turn you off in order to make the necessary repairs, but Kelly insisted that they check your brain functions first.”
The nurse leaned in and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Your android brain is overgrown with the human neurons they placed in you at creation. If they had turned you off, they would’ve never have been able to turn you on again.” She straightened up and adjusted the sheet. “You’re a lucky man, Max Wheeler. Most humans add mechanical parts and turn into machines. You, on the other hand, have changed from a machine into a man. A miracle, if I may say so.”
She turned to leave. “The doctor will be in shortly. Get some rest. You’ve awoken into a whole new life.”
Max watched her leave and lay back on his pillows. He blinked and felt an odd ache behind his eyes. Apparently being human involved some level of pain and discomfort. But then—he considered the possibilities—human?
He smiled as a tear traced its journey down his cheek.
“Your name is Justice.” Omega stroked his chin, his lips twitching in uncertainty. “Hmmm…not quite. Too Pilgrim’s Progress for my taste. Let’s see. Honesty? Truth? Oh, help; I might as well be naming an OldEarth compendium on the virtues of… virtue. How dreary!”
The figure of a young woman with long, black hair, dressed in a form-fitting, dark blue, bodysuit lay on a table, her hands clasped over her chest like the remains of a dearly departed. Omega clapped his hands in frustration. “The joys of creation! Even God Himself left the naming to his creatures.” Omega snapped his fingers, a light in his eyes. “She’ll tell me.”
Running his hand over the woman’s head, he closed his eyes in concentration.
The woman stirred. Her blue eyes blinked open.
Omega stepped back, one hand over his mouth as if to stifle a laugh—or a scream.
The woman turned her head, her gaze running over the figure before her. A frown formed between her brows. “Who—?”
Omega stepped forward, his hand extended for assistance. “Here, let me help you.” With a gentle touch, he pulled the woman to a sitting position. Bowing in a courtly manner, he smiled. “My name is Omega. At least that’s what my father calls me. But since you are my original creation, I suppose you must call me—creator.”
“Creator?” The woman shifted slightly as her gaze scoured the silent, still laboratory. “Why am I here?”
Omega’s eyes followed hers, and he frowned. “Yes, well, my laboratory isn’t much yet, I’ll admit. But this is not your destination. I’ve arranged for a transport to take you beyond the Divide where you’ll find…employment.”
The woman threw her legs over the table and clenched the edge. “I am a—”
Omega shook his head. “Not sure yet. To be honest, Father warned me about this. I have a tendency to rush in where fools fear to tread.” With a sigh, Omega took the woman’s hand and helped her off the table. “But don’t be afraid. You have the strength of twenty humans, the data banks of six species, and enough moral code to ensure your survival.”
“You will direct me?”
Omega shook his head, his gaze lowered. “No. That would ruin everything. If I’m to learn anything, you must discover yourself. But—” He looked up and grinned. “I’m working on another one like you, a male this time. He’s been a challenge, but he’ll come out all right in the end, I dare say.” Omega led the woman to a doorway, still clasping her hand. “Strange, I hate to let you go, though I know I must.”
The woman stopped on the threshold. “Who am I?”
Omega rubbed his brow. “You are what humans fear most. I was going to name you Justice but that rankled my sensibilities.” He led her across the threshold and down a long corridor. Other beings, Crestas, Ingots, and two Uanyi passed without comment. When they came upon a large tunnel, Omega led her to an open-sided vehicle and stood by as she perched on the edge of a seat. “It’s a short ride to the central station. Busy place, but I enjoy the bustle of activity.” Various beings entered the open vehicle. A Cresta lumbered over and gripped a central pole with his long tentacles while two, slim, Uanyi with their soft, rubbery exoskeletons slumped on a seat together, chatting in their own language.
The woman stared at her hands and then at the others. Omega watched her and sighed. When the vehicle stopped outside a docking bay, Omega nudged her forward. A huge window separated them from the stationary ships, docked for repairs or loading for their next foray into space. The woman stared at the masses of beings hustling all around her. “I see Ingots, Crestas, Uanyi, and Bhuaci—but none like me.”
“No, you are part android and part human. Humanity is not ready for you—yet. It’s your privilege to discover the larger universe before being introduced to your other half. I’ll be delighted to see what you make of yourself.” He pointed to the largest ship. “You will travel on that one, The Mercantile. A trader in need of protection has hired you.” Omega gripped her hand and gazed into her eyes. “There will be trouble ahead; war brews in the hearts of these beings. But I’m sure you will manage.” Omega peered deeper into the woman’s steady gaze. He smiled with a relieved chuckle. “Yes, you’ll do fine. There’s something ethereal about you.” Caressing her cheek, he mused. “Justine… Santana…holy justice. That’ll be your name. Whether you live up to it or not—will be up to you.”
A blaring noise swept across the loading dock. Omega took Justine’s hand and led her forward. “Time to meet your future.”
As Omega stood back, Justine ascended the boarding tube. She looked back once, clear-eyed and confident before she stepped into the interior.