Teal stood holding a drink in one hand, tapping his leg with the other, and a frown building between his eyes.
The brilliantly lit hall filled with trailing green vines, glowing flowers, and an astonishing array of birds, barely scored his conscious mind. He had seen a million such rooms before. The company was different though. Luxonians in their human forms, Ingots, encased in their mechanical exoskeletons, and Crestas, lumbering along in their terrestrial bio-suits mingled in forced diplomacy.
Zuri, back straight, chest out, circulated amid an Ingoti throng across the room, which hummed with the uneasy murmurings of three races attempting to mingle in an uneasy alliance.
Putting his drink aside, Teal’s gaze shifted to his superior, Judge Sterling, who looked like he had been chewing glass for breakfast.
Sterling, dressed immaculately in a long, flowing robe and cotton pants, stood square-shouldered as he faced off a leading scientist of Crestar. Sterling’s eyes lowered to half-mast.
Boredom or loathing? So hard to tell from this distance.
A hand gripped his shoulder. Teal stiffened as he glanced at the mechanical glove. How did Zuri manage to sneak around him like that?
Clenching his jaw, Teal peered at the Ingoti trader. “You should know my name by now—you’ve complained about me often enough to the Ingilium—and the Supreme Council.”
Zuri’s form-fitting techno-armor, a brilliant red for the conference, nearly outshone his wide, practiced smile. “In truth, I’m surprised they let you come. After all, this is where we make agreements to respect each other and—”
“Like you respect the human race?”
Taking two steps into Teal’s personal space, Zuri waved a hand that could snap a neck. “Do you see any humans here? And why would that be? Possibly because they’re not evolved to the point where they can represent themselves at our level?”
Teal glanced ahead as Sterling wandered in his direction. Teal’s frown melted as he lifted his hand in salute.
Zuri backed off.
Sterling offered a slight bow. “Well, what have we here? The most infamous Ingoti trader this side of the Divide?”
Teal’s gaze bounced like a ball from Sterling to Zuri.
Flexing his impressive biomechanical exoskeleton, Zuri’s chest expanded alarmingly. “Don’t get jealous, Judge Sterling. Ingoti trade benefits Ingots, Luxonians, and Crestas—anyone willing to pay a fair price.”
Sterling tucked a stray lock of his luminous white hair into perfect place. “Pity, humans keep getting in your way. Teal has reported that humans seem to disappear when they have the unfortunate luck to wander too close to one of your mining operations.”
Zuri’s hands clenched. “I’ve taken plenty of native-sensitive precautions. I introduced three kinds of protective repellants and made bloody well sure that they appeared to be right out of one of their superstitious belief systems. I did my research!”
A bell toned.
The two Luxonians glanced at the Ingoti representative beckoning them to their next meeting.
Zuri kept his glare plastered on Sterling.
Teal glowered. “Like it or not, we need stronger non-interference regulations for undeveloped planets. You’re already exploiting their natural resources, and humanity will suffer from your greed.”
The tone repeated—louder.
Judge Sterling tugged Teal toward the conference door. “We’ll handle this issue in the proper setting.”
Zuri smacked his metallic fists together. “You think humans don’t exploit each other? What about that creature called Neb? And his son—Ishtar? Don’t tell me that their noble hearts will win out over generations of greed. I’m just doing to humans what they’ll do to each other given time.”
Teal pulled away from Sterling’s grasp and stared deep into Zuri’s narrowed eyes. “You don’t know who Ishtar might become or what’ll happen to Neb. Don’t justify your evil by insisting everyone is evil. It’s too simplistic—even for an Ingot.”
A. K. Frailey is the author of 17 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
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