Boiling Lava Rocks
Sienna studied a large hologram rotating before her. Rainbow-colored disks spread across the universe. She tapped the console and squinted. One sector magnified a thousand percent, rolling closer like a storm. She bit her lip and tapped the magnify button again and again. Beyond the Divide! Where are you?
A chime rang.
Sienna frowned and turned. “Come in, Kelesta.”
The door slid open and the Bhuaci clerk ambled in, a smile wreathing her petite face. “Any success?”
Sienna shook her head. “They’re gone…as if they never existed.”
Her lips puckering in a childish pout, Kelesta stopped at Sienna’s side. “They’re just hiding.” She waved a languid hand. “They can’t hide forever. At some point, their curiosity will get the better of them, and they’ll expose themselves to us…or to someone.”
A doubt shivered through Sienna. Her gaze slid over to her friend. “Have they shown themselves to you recently?”
Her body stiffening, Kelesta frowned. “Not really. The one who contacted me originally pretended to be human…an old man. I knew, of course.”
“And why did he contact you?”
“He said he needed help.”
“He knew we needed help.”
Pacing away, Sienna crossed her arms. “An exchange of assistance?”
“We would be each other’s ears and eyes.”
Sienna turned, her anger building. “And were you?”
Kelesta sighed. “I told Sterling—I told you all—the truth. I thought they were going to protect us…that was the arrangement.”
“So you haven’t had any contact with them—lately?”
Kelesta crossed her arms, her body enlarged and hardened, and a menacing scowl rolling over her face. “No! And I’m not looking to contact them.” She reverted to her former petite shape. Sidestepping Sienna, she wandered around the revolving hologram. “There’s only one way to keep an eye on such a powerful enemy.”
Sienna’s eyes followed the Bhuaci. She titled her head. “How?”
“Let them keep an eye on us.” She arrived at Sienna’s left and tapped the console. The universe dissolved and reappeared with Earth in the center. “Let’s return and discover what it is about humans that fascinates Ungle and the Ingilium so much.”
“Crestas are obsessed with science, and Ingots only care about trade.”
“More than that…” Kelesta grinned and cast a side- glance at Sienna. “Besides, I’d like to understand Zuri better.” She licked her lips. “He’s unlike any Ingot I’ve ever met.”
A hot flush worked up Sienna’s cheeks. “You’re interested in Zuri?”
Kelesta straightened her tunic and tugged at the collar. “Professionally. Certainly. The more I understand our enemies…the safer the Bhuaci will be.”
With a shrug, Sienna turned toward the door. “Teal seems to trust him.” She stopped. “But Teal wants me to bring information about the mystery race—”
Kelesta nudged her forward. “And you will. Once we get back to Earth and discover what all the fuss is about.”
Teal, dressed in a patched, sleeveless shirt and gray leggings, stood on the brow of the hill and glanced back at Ark and Zuri. “You two, stay here. I’m going in.”
Ark blinked as sweat dripped down the side of his face. “Is that wise?”
Zuri scratched his short blond hair. “You look human enough, but up close…someone might notice differences.”
“No one ever has before.” Teal peered around. “Where’s Sterling?”
Ark glanced at Zuri.
Zuri shuffled his feet. “He’s with Ungle.” He pointed to a rocky outcropping. “But I don’t think Ungle—”
Glowing at the edges, Teal frowned. “I’m tired of tiptoeing around that Cresta’s sensibilities.”
His eyes alarmingly wide, Ark waved a tentacle. “You may not want to get irritated in front of humans…you’re glowing—”
In an instant, Teal returned to his human state—sans the bright outline. He stomped to the enormous boulders.
Sterling sat on a jagged ledge, his hands clasped like a contrite child.
Ungle paced before him, waving his tentacles. “Lux cannot afford to indulge—”
Teal clambered the rest of the way up the incline and glared at Ungle.
Ungle stared back. “This was a private discussion.”
Pointing to the stone city below, Teal shrugged. “I don’t think they care.”
His jaw rotating and bubbles rising, Ungle hissed through his breather helm. “Bothmal was created for such—”
Teal threw up his hands. “Please. No threats. No lectures.” He turned and faced Sterling with his hands perched on his hips. “If we’re going to learn anything useful, we’d better get down there—now.”
Sterling blinked like a mystified child. “We?”
Rubbing his neck, Teal kept his eyes fixed on Sterling, dearly wishing he could knock him backward with the force of his gaze. “It’ll be a lot easier to pass myself off as a merchant if I have a slave to sell.”
Jerking to his feet, Sterling choked. “A slave!” His whole body shimmered. “I never!”
Rejecting Sterling’s idiocy, Teal stomped over to Ungle and leaned in close to Ungle’s watery orbs. “Do you—or do you not—want to learn about Chai?”
A grin slid over Ungle’s face. Wrapping a tentacle around Sterling’s shoulder, he led him to the brow of the hill overlooking the city. “If there’s a Luxonian alive that can take us beyond murky waters into clear pools, I believe it’s you, Sterling.”
Sterling’s shoulders slumped. With a long shuddering sigh, he shrunk and shriveled, losing stature and weight. His clothes dissolved into mere rags and his gorgeous locks of hair turned stringy-brown, matted with dirt and lice.”
Ungle stepped back hastily, flipping his tentacles out of reach.
Teal frowned. “Don’t overdo it. Lose the lice. I want to sell you not drown you.”
Grinning, Ungle waddled down the hill and turned toward Zuri and Ark at the bottom. He waved a tentacle in salute. “I’m returning home, so you’ll be on your own.” He glanced at Sterling. “I want details, Sterling. Colorful details!” He passed Zuri, who stood frowning and merely patted Ark on the shoulder.
Ark called. “Leaving so soon?”
Ungle chuckled as he headed to the hills. “Mission accomplished!”
Teal nudged Sterling toward the city. “Ours has just begun.”
Zuri scanned through his datapad, scowling in the bright afternoon light.
Ark flopped down and poured a green liquid into his breather Helm. “By the Divide, I hate waiting.” He glanced over to Zuri. “What’s wrong?” He nudged Zuri. “I thought you’d be thrilled. Sienna’s gone. Ungle’s gone. Granted, we still have to deal with Sterling, but he’ll leave as soon as this temple business is taken care of.”
Zuri’s gaze stayed fixed on the datapad. He rubbed his hand over his short hair. “Oh, blast!”
Ark frowned. “Naughty girlfriend?”
Zuri glanced over. “She liked the picture I sent.” He wiggled his eyebrows and pointed to his head.
Ark licked his lips. “That’s good, right?”
Zuri sighed. “Now she wants to see my hands.”
Tentacles flying to his face, Ark looked every millimeter the blushing, scandalized matron of every-world. “What next I wonder? Your…do we dare think it?” His voice lowered as he leaned in, his gaze dropping to Zuri’s mechanical boots.
Zuri dropped the datapad aside. “This could go places I’m not really prepared—”
A shuffling noise stiffened them both into statuesque poses and complete silence.
A goat trotted forward, sniffed, and bolted back the way it had come.
Ark thrust a tentacle over his chest. “That was too close.”
Crouching, Zuri scrambled to the outcropping and peered over the edge. In the distance, three children and a flock of goats ambled in their direction. “Boiling lava rocks!”
Ark edged closer. “Please, no ugly images.” He peered over the edge. “They’re between us and the cave.”
“Bet they bring those quadrupeds up here for the season and use that cave for…” His eyes widening, Zuri scrambled for his datapad.
Ark peered at him. “What’re you—?”
“Creating a diversion.”
An explosion blasted from inside the cave.
Screaming, the children darted down the hill with the goats close at their heels.
Crouching over, Zuri skedaddled for the cave entrance.
Ark lumbered behind, huffing, his gaze searching the perimeter. When he stopped next to Zuri just inside the cave, he patted his chest as if to keep his organs safely inside. “I’m a scientist…not an explorer. I tried to tell them.” He glanced at Zuri. “Teal would never’ve made that mistake. We were just sitting out there for all the world— ”
Zuri clambered to his ship, pressed the datapad, and waited while the hatch fell open. “I’ve been distracted.” He climbed the ramp and huffed. “What’s your excuse?”
Ark padded behind. “Touchy, aren’t we? Just because your girlfriend wants to see you au natural—it isn’t any reason to—”
On the main deck, Zuri turned and faced Ark. “I can handle that. One article of bio-ware at a time.” He shifted into the helm’s seat.
“Sienna’s coming back…and she’s bringing her Bhuaci friend.”
“Boiling lava rocks!”
“Like I said.”
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” ~Aristotle
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