OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Nine

An Honest Weakness

Zuri stood on the hilltop and inhaled a deep breath of air, then exhaled slowly. Exhilaration spread through his limbs. Happiness? Joy? Ecstasy? He couldn’t define the emotions soaring like twittering birds through his body. He peered at his tanned, slender fingers. Though they weren’t nearly as strong without the mechanical gloves, their sensitivity sent shivers of delight to his brain. He wiggled his toes and shrugged. Not much joy there. Couldn’t have everything.

Kelesta sauntered close and wrapped her arm around his waist. “The boy is home now, reunited with his papa, so why don’t we do something interesting?”

Peering down at the petite human form, beguiling but deceptive, an image of his previous mate passed through his mind. Jeni used to ask innocent questions when she wanted something. Zuri narrowed his eyes, focusing his lenses. Peering through the human façade, he stared right into the Bhuaci essence.

Kelesta flared and swung away. “If you’re going to take x-rays…you should ask permission first.”

A hot blush worked up into his cheeks. “Sorry. It’s an Ingot defense mechanism.”

“You’re afraid of me?” Kelesta slapped her hand on her chest in exaggerated shock, her eyes unnaturally wide.

“Not afraid…just—” He turned away from Ishtar’s village and stomped down the hill. “After Jeni chose another, I always wonder what she wanted from me in the first place.”

Practically dancing alongside, Kelesta flung her arms out wide like a butterfly, each nimble foot bouncing from one spot to the next. “She’s the one who wanted you to go primitive, right?”

“She said she wanted me to experience life without all the mechanical hindrances. Talked a lot about freedom and unique personal expression.”

“So you do it, and she dumps you?” Kelesta shook her head. “Some beings are brutally cruel.” She glanced aside. “But you’re left rather naked, aren’t you?”

Slipping his datapad from his arm holster, Zuri tapped the keypad. “Turns out, she was doing research. She wanted to gain a position at the Ingoti Magisterium Laboratory. Quite a leap for a fourth tier.”

“So, you were attracted to her mind?”

Zuri frowned as he scanned the area. “No. Her mother was actually a reject that slipped through the system but managed to make good by inventing a better detector so other rejects would be caught at an earlier stage.” He pointed north. “Chai is that way.”

Her mouth hanging open, Kelesta stood frozen a moment before she leapt ahead and grabbed Zuri’s arm. “But then she’d be killing others like herself…the ones who might prove the system wrong!”

Zuri nodded. “That’s why I found her fascinating.” Turning, he stomped northward.

Kelesta crossed her arms high on her chest and scowled as she marched at Zuri’s side. “But you still liked her?”

“Not in the least. Fascination is a different experience altogether.” He slapped an insect on his neck and wrinkled his nose. “Though I do enjoy the myriad of skin sensations and the exhilaration of freedom from certain mechanical bio-ware, I must admit, coverage had definite advantages. ”He held a dead wasp by the wing. “Stings hurt.”

Kelesta stopped short. “So why did you stay with her?”

Halting, Zuri took another scan of the area. “Choose her as a mate, you mean?” He glanced at the flat horizon. “You don’t understand Ingoti culture. Since we are conceived and developed in laboratories, we don’t consider relationships to be anything more than temporary arrangements for emotional, psychological, and physical pleasure.” He snorted. “It’s not like I needed her. Or she needed me. Except…as a test specimen for her lab experiment.”

“You used each other?” Kelesta swallowed and started forward, her gaze sweeping the ground.

Zuri shook his head and paced after her. “Yes. And I don’t see why you’re upset.” He gripped her arm, coming to a standstill. “You’re using me right now.”

Kelesta jerked her arm away, fury flooding her glinting eyes. “How dare you!”

Zuri lifted his arms to the sky beseechingly. “May the Magisterium send me home this very day if I’m wrong. But—” he peered down and zeroed in on Kelesta. “But aren’t you using me to get to Chai? Isn’t that what Ungle asked you to do?”

A hawk soared overhead, and Kelesta followed it with her eyes. “Originally, yes. But I told Sienna the truth. I told everyone the truth. I was being used to get information because I was desperate to protect my people.”

Zuri glanced at his datapad and pointed. “Chai isn’t far.” He shrugged. “When I scanned you, I saw your heightened energy levels. You’re hiding something.”

Kelesta dropped her head onto her chest and closed her eyes. “You’re right.” She peered up and met his gaze. “Even if I tried to explain, you wouldn’t understand.” She sniffed and tapped his naked hand. “Even without all your filters, I wonder if you can ever really love anyone.” She started forward. “Come on! Let’s go study a man possessed by demons.”

~~~

Ark wiped a tear from his eye.

Sitting on a rock ledge, Sterling glanced at the Cresta beside him and slapped his forehead. “If I’d known you were so emotional, I would’ve taken the Ingot. He may have a fascination with children, but at least he can hold himself together at a family reunion.”

Wringing his tentacles in his lap, Ark felt like a chastened pod. “I just didn’t think he had it in him…to be so repentant.” He sighed, his shoulders slumping. “It takes courage to ask for forgiveness.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

Ark lumbered to his booted feet, a flash of enlightenment clearing his weary brain. “That may be quite significant!” Waddling down the stony path, he sniffed the air. “There’s water near, and I’m desperate for a dunk.” He peered at Sterling. “I believe a swim would do us both good.”

“Luxonians hardly need—”

A sudden strong wind swirled around them, choking the air with thick dust.

Ark gripped Sterling to keep him upright.

When the air cleared, the two stood frozen, covered in dirt, appearing like mere ghosts of their former selves.

Sterling cleared his throat and wiped grime from his eyes. “Where’s that pool you mentioned?”

~~~

Sterling dropped the second boot and watched Ark lumber into a murky green pool surrounded by tall boulders and flimsy grass stems. He wiped his slimy hands on his tunic and stared at the water. I couldn’t possibly. It’s much too disgusting. Besides, I can just as easily—

“Hurry up! It’s glorious. Don’t be frightened of innocent liquids.” Ark splashed a tentacle as he swished from one end of the pond to the other, flipping like an Ingoti eel at each turn.

Thinks I lack courage—eh? Blast him! Taking short, determined breaths, Sterling tiptoed into the water. He winced at the slimy green surface and wrinkled his nose. “Don’t take offense if I just bathe my toes.” He fingered his long tunic and robe. “I’m hardly dressed for full immersion.”

“Toss your robe next to my boots and slip in!” Ark giggled, watching Sterling’s every move. “You’ll regret being a coward when I tell Teal that you stayed on the edge like a frightened—”

“Oh, shut up!” Sterling flung his robe aside, pinched his nose, and dove into the pond.

Ark rose, his tentacles on his thick middle, his eyes wide, watching bubbles surface.

More bubbles surfaced.

Ark frowned. His tentacles wiggled at his sides.

More bubbles.

Ark’s bulbous eyes widened.

The pond stilled, the surface smoothing to reflect the sky.

Ark took a step and leaned forward, anxiety riding like ridges over his skin.

Sterling broke the surface, laughing. Genuine amusement cascaded throughout his whole body. He stared at Ark’s open mouth. “I saw everything! You were worried about me, poor dear.”

Falling backward and paddling with his arms, Ark maneuvered to the other side. “Was not.”

Sterling stood and wagged a wet finger at Ark, drops of water cascading before him. “Oh, please. For all your talk of courage and cowards, you certainly refrain from admitting an honest weakness.”

Ark banked against the sandy shore and sat up. “What weakness?”

Sloshing out of the pond, water plants trailing behind, Sterling padded to a smooth boulder. He sat down, letting the water drip onto the sand. “I’m not nearly as obtuse as you think me, Cresta.”

Ark leaned back and folded his tentacles over his ample stomach. “Tell me.”

“You think that Ishtar’s strength lies in his ability to humble himself.” Sterling shrugged. “From Teal’s early reports, there does seem to be a pattern.”

Ark’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Sterling.

Sterling clasped his hands together and stared at a flock of birds soaring across the sky. “When Ishtar accepted Eoban’s assistance, he broke free from his father’s stranglehold. When he accepted Pele’s witness, he found the strength to fight the giants.”

Ark nodded. He glanced at the whirl of birds and frowned.

“But when his pride was hurt, and he accepted the glory of wealth and a woman who offered an escape from shame, he fell into madness.”

The birds flew away, becoming mere specks in an endless horizon.

Ark rose and shook himself free of pond plants. “I admire your perception.” He waddled closer and crouched by his boots. Snatching them up, he padded to Sterling. “But that’s not what I meant by courage.”

Sterling stared at the offered boots, pursing his lips, disgust rising from his middle. “What then?”

“When Ishtar met Matalah, he met a new father figure. He could’ve rejected the very idea. After what he’d been through, I wouldn’t have blamed him.” He dropped the boots at Sterling’s feet. “But he accepted Matalah’s kindness and, as we’ve seen, returned to his own sons.” Lifting one of his four-toed feet, Ark balanced himself by gripping Sterling’s shoulder. “It takes great courage to trust again…to risk caring. To allow oneself to be helped…to love and be loved.”

Lifting his gaze, Sterling met Ark’s golden eyes. He swallowed. “By the Divide, you’ve got me beat, Cresta.”

~~~

Teal crouched low in the tall grass and swore under his breath. He fixed his gaze on Obed as he stumbled at the end of a long line of prisoners. Teal turned to Sienna, who crouched next to him and pointed north. “Go and follow Eoban’s trail. See if he found the child and made it home.”

Sienna glanced from the ragged throng of slaves to the marching warriors and beyond to the stalwart figure leading the assembly. She hissed. “I don’t remember pledging obedience to you.”

“Remember your promise to Sterling?” He peered into her eyes. “You told him that you’d do whatever it took to become the best healer Lux has ever known.”

“To do that, I need to stay close to Chai—not chase after a fool who thinks he can save his people through daring exploits.”

“Eoban isn’t that shallow.”

Sienna stared at Teal, widening her eyes alarmingly.

“All right, maybe he is—sometimes. But he’s also brave and resilient. And he knows a thing or two about dealing with injuries and healing emotional wounds. There is a great deal you could learn from him.”

“What I need to learn, only Chai can teach me.”

His colors flaring, Teal bit off his words. “How to succumb to evil?”

“How evil holds a person in its grip.” Sienna shook her head. “Luxonians were once very sheltered. You know what exposure to the outer world has cost us. We’re losing our traditions, our values, our political framework—even our fertility.”

Teal dropped his gaze.

Clasping his hand, Sienna shifted closer. “You’re one of the last of the old guard, a Luxonian with ambition but without guile. You’re so honest, I don’t think you’re capable of seeing Chai and the power that rules him for what they really are.”

“But you can?”

“Let’s just say that I’m more ambitious than you.”

Teal shook his head. “I’m not about to let you get one step closer to that monster. Even Sterling fears the power it wields.”

Sienna sucked in a deep breath. “Have it your way.” She nodded decisively. “Someone should check on Eoban, and someone must keep an eye on Chai.”

Relief surged through Teal’s body, surprising him. He stood and pointed south. “Eoban knows his way around. He probably brought the boy home already. Start at the grassland village and work backward if you have to. If they’re there, stay and wait for me.”

Sienna clasped her hands and winked away.

Teal turned and faced Chai. He took two paces before searing pain crashed into his skull and blackness took him.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ~Ernest Hemingway

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Three

—OldEarth—

Intercept Course

Teal leapt over a boulder, scrambled up a rocky incline, and frowned at a loud gasp behind him. He peered over his shoulder.

Sterling lay sprawled on the ground like a broken toy.

Turning on his heel, Teal doubled backed, lifted Sterling by the arms, and dragged him to the shelter of an overhanging cliff. He dropped the ragged figure in the shade without ceremony and fell on his knees, heaving gasps of air.

Sterling sat up and rocked back and forth like a frightened child. “I can’t do this anymore. I really will disintegrate.”

Falling back on his haunches, Teal leaned on the shaded rock face, his heart pounding, his mind frozen. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Never.”

Sterling lay spread-eagle and sucked in deep draughts of air. “For once…I can write an interesting report…and I won’t…have to embellish…a bit of it.” He shook his head. His white hair splayed in the dust. “Too bad…it’ll be my last.”

Disgusted, Teal spared him a glance.

Rising with a groan, Sterling sat up, heaved a deep cleansing breath, and clapped his hands free of dirt and pebbles. “We’re not going any further with this study.” He shook his finger at the stone city in the distance. “You saw its power. Bothmal! It could’ve eaten us!”

Clasping his hands steeple-style before his face, Teal stared into the distance. “I don’t think it could sense us as clearly as we could sense it. Certainly, the guards only saw us as men…not Luxonians. I doubt it could know—”

“By all that is good and holy, I’m not about to find out what it knows.” Climbing to his feet, Sterling ran his hand over his hair and smoothed down his rumbled rags. “You saw them…once they lost the chance to toss Obed into that pit, their eyes fixed right on yours truly.” He tapped his chest. “I would’ve become nothing more than an evening snack for that beast.”

Teal rose with a grunt. “Surely, it would’ve spit you out.”

Glaring, Sterling huffed and squared his shoulders. He shimmered and reappeared in his immaculate white tunic and leggings.

Leaning forward, Teal surveyed their desert surroundings. “No one followed. All’s clear.” He glanced back. “We can leave and meet up with the others— Luxonian-style of course.”

Sterling’s eyes drooped to half-mast. “I wasn’t about to tip-toe over that blasted desert.” He shook himself. “I still can’t believe I saw an honest-to-goodness demon.”

A flush worked over Teal’s face. “Honest-to-goodness? You’re delirious. Besides, we don’t even understand what humans mean by a demon. It’s a catch-all term to explain any terrify—”

“Annihilate! Do you deny that fiend was anything but what humans refer to as a demon?”

Startled, Teal drew back. He ran his fingers through his ruffled hair. “I’ll never understand you—sir.” He met Sterling’s gaze. “I thought you considered humans little more than barbarians.”

“Even barbarians can be right sometimes. They happen to be right about demons.”

Rubbing his chin, Teal considered the rock ceiling.

“How would you define it? Spirit energy? Light force? Dark matter? An unreported—?”

“Oh, it’s been reported—by almost every race in the universe. Demons may have different names and come in various forms, but they all inflict the same horror and spread the same destruction.” He shuddered. “You and I wouldn’t have disintegrated exactly—we would’ve become subservient to it. Slaves. Dead to ourselves and all free people.”

Teal closed his eyes. “I’m glad Obed escaped.”

Sterling bobbed his head up and down. “I’m glad we escaped!” He stepped forward. “I’m going to recommend that a quarantine be placed around this planet as soon as possible.”

Teal gripped Sterling’s arm. “But humanity isn’t demonic!”

“You saw those men. They are serving it innocent victims every pitiless day.”

Pounding into the light, Teal faced the sun. “But not all humanity does so. Some people resist evil.” He glared at Sterling. “You said it yourself, Obed escaped. And Ishtar escaped.” He exhaled and folded his arms. “Ungle has a point. We have to find Ishtar and watch what happens when he meets Chai.”

Sterling snorted. “So we can see him get devoured?” He curled his lips in obvious distaste. “I thought blood-sports disgusted you.”

Teal stepped up the rocky incline and pointed west. “As much as any decent being. We can’t defeat evil, but at least we can learn from those who resist it.”

~~~

Ark stood at the ship’s helm and hid a spreading grin behind a well-placed tentacle. A bubble of enjoyment tickled his insides as he watched the drama unfold before his eyes.

Zuri swaggered on deck, explaining with chest-thumping pride each and every instrument panel.

Kelesta practically purred, her eyes glued to Zuri’s every move.

Sienna stood near the open bay door, frowning. “Sterling and Teal should return any moment.” She glanced at Ark. “Are you quite done?”

Ark cleared his throat, sending bubbles to the surface of his breathing helm. “Oh, yes!” He turned and offered a generous smile. “Young love—I could watch all day and never get bored.”

Sienna’s gaze shifted to Zuri, roving from his spiked blond hair to his sandaled four-toed feet. “He almost appears human now.”

Ark snorted. “That’s the idea…or rather to look more Old-World Ingoti.”

Sienna crossed her arms and glared at Ark. “So are you going to tell me—or do I have to guess?”

“Zuri’s lady friend likes her mates au-naturale.”

“Zuri has a mate?” Sienna’s gaze darted to Kelesta.

Unconcerned, Ark waved a tentacle. “I don’t suppose it’s terribly serious, considering how much time he spends away.”

Pursing her lips, Sienna frowned. “Some people are faithful no matter the distance.”

A bright light blinked, and Sterling appeared in the middle of the deck with Teal standing behind him.

Zuri turned sharply, and Kelesta tripped, gripping his arm for support.

Without ceremony, Teal glanced around. His eyes stopped on Zuri, and he stepped forward. “Where’s Ishtar?”

With a by-your-leave grin, Zuri slipped from Kelesta’s grasp and met Teal in the middle of the deck. “He saw the ravages of Chai’s conquests and is hurrying home. Why? What’s happened?”

Sterling sauntered closer and shrugged. “We met a demon from hell.”

Everyone froze.

Ark giggled and flipped a tentacle over his breathing helm, a flush working up his face. “Sorry. Such a blatantly vivid image—”

Teal stomped to an instrument panel and scanned the surface. “Hardly a laughing matter.” He glanced at Zuri.

Zuri padded to the central computer and tapped the surface. A holographic image appeared in the middle of the room.

In colorful detail, Ishtar appeared to be working his way around the coast of a large lake.

Zuri peered up. “He’s near home. The women have hidden in caves. He might run into them or someone from his clan soon.”

Ark shuffled closer, rubbing two tentacles together. “Bet that’ll be fun.”

Teal swallowed. “Where’s Chai?”

Zuri tapped the console again, his slender fingers flying over the flat surface.

A holographic image showed Chai leading a large band of warriors, with a ragged line of slaves struggling behind, north of Ishtar’s position.

Zuri faced Teal. “They’re on an intercept course.”

Sterling leaned forward scowling. “Who’s that coming up behind Chai?”

Teal slapped his forehead. “Oh, the fools. That’s Eoban, Barak, and Obed.”

Ark frowned, his lips pursed into flabby tubes. “They have no idea what they’re about to run into.”

The image blurred, and Teal shouted at Zuri. “What’re you doing?”

Zuri shrugged. “I want to know what happened to the boy—Ishtar’s son.”

Ark snorted.

Zuri tilted his head, his eyes wide. “What? So I have a soft spot for children.”

The image refocused on Amin. Sweat poured down his thin face as he struggled through a thick forest, brushing thorns and vines out of his path.

Sienna blinked and shook her head. “Poor thing.”

Kelesta squinted at the scene. “There’s something following him.”

Ark, turning green, glanced away. “I can’t watch.”

Sterling snarled at Ark. “You’re a Cresta scientist—you dissect specimens all the time.”

“After they’ve died!” Ark swiveled about, his tentacles flying in all directions. “Get it through your Luxonian filters—Crestas have to study everything. It’s what we do. How we survive. But that hardly makes us cold-hearted.”

Teal tapped his fingers together. “Can we debate this another time?” He turned to Zuri. “Want to split up?”

Kelesta’s eyes widened as she wiggled next to the Ingot.

Zuri peered down at her hope-filled eyes and rubbed his beardless chin. “Fine. We’ll follow Amin.”

Teal swiveled toward Ark. “Take Sterling and keep an eye on Ishtar.”

Ark grinned, his golden eyes gleaming. “It’ll be my pleasure!”

Sterling raised his hand. “When—exactly—did I get demoted?”

Scowling, Teal turned away. “You’re doing what Ungle asked—keeping an eye on Ishtar. There’s no other place for you to be.”

Sienna sauntered over to Teal and wrapped her arm around his. “And we’ll follow the three fools?”

Teal shook his head. “They barely escaped the temple demon, and now they’re bumbling right into Chai.” He exhaled. “I can only pity them.”

Ark stood back and appraised the gathering. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from humans…”

All eyes fixed on the Crestonian.

Ark grinned. “Nothing ever goes as planned.”

Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.~ PRISON CHAPLAIN, A Clockwork Orange

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-One

—Woodland—

My One Blindness

Eoban trudged through the wilderness with Barak on his right and Obed in the lead. He muttered, swapping leaves out of his way. “How does he know where he’s going? Luge only gave me—”

Barak stepped over a log. “Are we going in the wrong direction?”

Eoban shrugged. “Not too much. We might stumble somewhere near it—eventually.” He waved at Obed’s straight, uncompromising back. “He won’t stop to rest…or let us rest. Under the great sky, what put him into such an ugly humor?”

Barak squeezed his eyes shut a moment. “Don’t ask.”

Nudging Barak’s shoulder, Eoban forced him to blink. “Easy for you to say. You don’t have to live under his authority. He’s the leader of my clan, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Obed halted and faced the two men. “I won’t be the leader much longer. As soon as we return, I’m giving up leadership. Any man with the desire may take up my role.” He stared pointedly at Eoban. “Even you.” With a sharp turn, he marched away.

Like an angry stag, Eoban dropped his head, charged forward, and gripped Obed’s shoulder. “Oh, no, you don’t! You were chosen as the leader, and you’ve managed your position well enough except for a few lapses when you’ve contradicted me.” He stuck out his chin and peered at Obed. “Why are you acting like a cat caught in a thorn tree? We” —he gestured toward himself and Barak— “don’t even know what happened.”

As if he had been struck, Obed rotated his chin and rubbed his hand over his face. “Everything has changed—for me.”

Turning his head and glaring out of one fixed eye, Eoban spat his words. “But not for us? You’re going to abandon leadership and hope everything just” —he flailed his hands— “works out?” He snorted as bitterness rose in his throat. “We’re supposed to let you stew in anger while you lead us?” Eoban waved empathically. “Where are you leading us? Do you even know?”

Startled, Obed licked his lips. “Luge said that he lived on the eastern side near a waterfall. You said there was a waterfall above the foothills on the eastern mount.” He glanced from Barak to Eoban. “We’re going in that direction. Right?”

Eoban sighed, shaking his head. “For the most part, but I think we need to start coming down a bit.”

Obed and Barak nodded, and they trudged on in heavy silence.

~~~

Eoban led the way across the rough terrain, but as the sun lowered, Barak waved a limp hand. “I surrender. Let’s rest.”

When each man had drunk their fill from a stream and eaten a few morsels from their bags, Barak slumped under a large spreading tree and met Obed’s gaze. “I’m afraid this has been a doomed adventure. We certainly didn’t find Ishtar, and now you’re thinking of—”

Resting against another tree, Obed raised his hand. “I’ll explain.” He shifted, his gaze sweeping over the ground. “I’ve been wrong…about many things. I don’t know where to begin.”

Eoban plunked down between them and chuckled. “Oh, well, if that’s all—”

Barak kicked Eoban’s foot and glared a silent shut-up.

Shaking his head, Obed staggered back to his feet and paced before the two men.

An owl hooted in the distance and a breeze stirred the leaves.

Obed exhaled a long breath. “You’re right. I’ve always been so sure of myself…so certain—”

Barak rubbed his head. “Just tell us what happened that night.”

Obed swallowed and stared at the ground. “The temple priests assembled for one of their rituals…and they allowed me to stay.”

Eoban shrugged. “That was generous. I wouldn’t have thought they’d let an outsider watch.”

Obed nodded. “I should’ve been suspicious.” His eyes gleamed in the evening light as he glanced aside. “I should’ve had you with me, Eoban.”

Eoban sniffed and rubbed his nose. “Then neither of us would’ve been there.”

Turning away, Obed strangled a laugh. “Right again.”

Barak searched through his bag. “Was it interesting? Did they do anything…?”

“They offered a sacrifice.”

Barak froze and Eoban leapt to his feet. “By God, you didn’t stand by and watch—”

Sucking in a sobbing breath, Obed tottered close and gripped Eoban by the front of his tunic, his eyes bloodshot and glimmering. “They tried to sacrifice me! By all the devils of hell!” He jerked away and pounded to the shadows. “They gave me a drink… it was drugged. I got confused…and weak.”

Obed’s breathing grew labored, and his face dripped with sweat. “Before I knew what was happening, this…thing.” He heaved and bent double. “A shadow…a beast…rose from a pit…strong arms pushed me…I almost got pulled into a damned hole.”

Barak dropped his head to his chest and closed his eyes.

Eoban’s mouth fell open. With a shake, he stomped forward and peered at Obed’s bent head. “How did you get away?”

“I’m not sure.” Obed straightened. “I fought them…and I ran. Like a scared rabbit. I ran out of that stone hell and hid in the woods.” Shuddering, tears ran down Obed’s cheeks. “I’ve never been so ashamed.”

Barak gazed at Obed. “There’s no shame in saving your skin.”

Obed opened his mouth but no words came.

Eoban placed a gentle hand on Obed’s shoulder. A piercing shaft of understanding melted every shred of his anger. “Someone else had to be sacrificed…is that it?”

Dropping his head onto his hands, Obed wept, his shoulders heaving. “God, help me. I knew such things were possible…Neb, Ishtar…Haruz.” He wiped his face and straightened, his whole body stiffening. “But I never really felt the evil before…and saw my own blindness.”

Obed retreated to a spot under a tree and plunked down.

After a few moments, Eoban rubbed his face and chuckled. “Well, if this doesn’t make me happy, nothing will.” He stepped over to Obed, crouched before him, and stuck out his hand.

Obed stared, a perplexed frown crowding his forehead.

Eoban’s hand remained open and steady. “I want to welcome the new man to the clan. You’ll do rather nicely as our leader. Just wish you had turned up ages ago.”

Obed bit his lip and glanced aside at Barak.

Barak grinned.

Obed clasped Eoban’s hand, and Eoban pulled him to his feet. “Now, let’s get something to eat.”

You can best fight any existing evil from the inside. ~Hattie McDaniel

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Eight

—Stone City—

Heart Sick

Obed’s mouth fell open as he tilted back his head and stared at the enormous, ornate structure. Guards stood posted at the entrance, letting him, Eoban, and Barak pass through without comment.

Inside, carvings covered the walls and statues populated the corners. Strange forms, various mixtures of human and animal, glared down at them. Murals decorated the ceiling and geometric tiles under their feet dazzled their eyes.

Sucking in a deep breath, Obed savored the experience. “Master craftsmen beyond imagination—”

Eoban tapped Obed’s lower jaw. “You’re drooling. Close your mouth before someone takes you for an idiot.” He nudged Barak. “Come over here. I think I see Haruz’s god.”

Heat flushing over his face, Obed pointedly ignored Eoban and Barak as they strolled out of sight.

As the afternoon sunlight filtered through the elongated windows near the ceiling, Obed wandered from room to room, his attention rapt and his admiration reaching new heights at every turn.

~~~

Barak’s hair prickled as he stared at one particularly grotesque figure, a man’s lower body attached to a scorpion’s upper half. He swallowed back bile and imagined his children’s terror. Murmuring under his breath, he came up beside Eoban. “Thank the stars we didn’t bring Amin to this place.”

Images of Ishtar and Haruz’s failed sacrifice flashed through Barak’s mind. Then, like waves on a stormy lake, memories of every battle he had fought thrust bloody gore before his wide-awake eyes. Shivering, he rubbed his clammy arms. He peered at Eoban. “I need air.” Hoping he didn’t look as terror-struck as he felt, Barak moved from room to room, zigzagging through the maze-like structure. Once beyond the guards and stepping into the bright sunshine, he gulped fresh air.

~~~

Eoban wandered aimlessly. He watched Barak hustle out, glad the man left before he turned any greener. Eoban started for the next interior entrance and hesitated, doubt clawing up his spine. He scowled. It’s not like I’ll get lost. He glanced at the guards wearing long colorful tunics on each side of the doorway. Must say, they dress well. He sighed and peered around. No sign of Ishtar.

Entering the next room, Eoban’s stomach plummeted to his toes. Around the room, larger-than-life stone carvings depicted half-human, half-animal beasts devouring grimacing human victims. Their silent screams sent terror shivering up his spine. His heart hammering, he glanced around. No table. No altar. No weapons. And most importantly, no victims. Eoban closed his eyes and muttered under his breath. “Time to join Barak. Sensible fellow.”

Bumbling passed a guard, he smacked into the wall.

The guard peered at him, irritation drawn across his furrowed brow.

Eoban lifted his hands. “Sorry. No harm done.” He hurried into the bright sunshine and pounded down the steep steps as fast as his legs could carry him.

~~~

Obed meandered in blissful silence, barely noticing the increase in activity and a chant wafting ever closer in a serpentine fashion through the temple. When horns blasted their shrill notes, he stopped and looked around.

The last of the visitors bustled through the doorway leading to the exit. He pursed his lips. An evening ceremony, perhaps?

With his hands clasped behind his back, Obed sauntered to the guard. “Can I stay and watch?”

Saying nothing, the guard merely retreated to a deeper interior.

Unruffled, Obed wandered back to a strange mural on the back wall and studied the interplay of colored stones and paint with the fading light.

Before he was done inspecting the mosaic, a tall elderly man with a thin beard padded toward him. Obed turned, ready to beg leave to watch to the ceremony.

“We’ve noticed your rapt attention and obvious admiration, so though we do not usually admit visitors, we’ll allow you to stay if you will do as you’re told.”

A sensuous pleasure swept over Obed.

The old man motioned ahead, and they paced through a series of doorways and down a long, dark hallway lighted only by torches fastened to the walls. At the end of the hall, a reflection of the setting sun poured into a huge interior room, sending shivers of delight over Obed. Seven men, including the old man, stood around the lip of a stone circle. He leaned forward, but in the fading light, he could not see what was in the center of the circle.

Chiming bells, unrecognizable chants, groans, gestures, flowing robes, and burning incense formed the bulk of a ritual Obed could not grasp. Confusion and weariness muddled his brain. Finally, an ornate goblet was passed and when it was offered to him, he took a tiny sip, swallowing a grimace from its bitter taste.

Unable to account for his reaction, a skin-crawling terror worked through Obed’s body. He shifted a step toward the entrance, panic pounding in his chest.

An undulating shadow rose from the circle, summoning Obed. In a dizzy half-awake stupor, he stepped forward, a deep hole, a cavernous death beckoning. Someone gripped his arm. Sweat dripped down his face. He could hear Jonas beseeching him, calling his name, “Obed!” Jerking, he flailed his arms.

As his grip slipped, the old man demanded, “Obey!”

A searing headache blinded him, but even without sight, Obed knew the distance to the door. He sped through the entrance, crashed against the wall, scrambled upright, and like a wounded animal, limped and clawed toward fresh air.

~~~

Eoban sat on the bottom step, his head in his hands. When Barak plunked down beside him, he sighed. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Barak nodded and peered over his shoulder. “How long before he comes out?”

A sour taste made Eoban wipe his lips. “So long as he doesn’t trip over a guard, turn into a statue, or fall into a black hole…” He shrugged and staggered to his feet, rubbing his back.

Barak rose and pointed to a public well and a cluster of food-sellers. He shuffled through the bag wound about his waist. “I’ve got a little to trade with.”

Eoban nodded. “Food and” —he pointed to a distant tree— “a rest.”

“Will Obed find us?”

Eoban chuckled and started forward. “After I get some sleep…I hope.”

Soon clouds rolled in and rain fell in sheets.

Eoban cursed under his breath and edged closer to Barak who slept peacefully under the spreading oak tree.

~~~

Obed scampered down the temple steps, his heart pounding, and raced across the city, zigzagging through the narrow streets like a wounded animal fleeing for its life. Sweat and rain poured down his face and into his eyes. He collided against a stone wall and fell in a heap. “Oh, God…oh, God.” Rain blanketed him as darkness swept all fear from his mind. Murmuring, he curled into a tight ball and fell into a tormented sleep.

~~~

Eoban, wet and exhausted, opened his blurry eyes and blinked.

Obed stood over him, swaying like a tree in a high wind.

Eoban slapped Barak’s sleeping form next to him. “Look who’s returned from his midnight merry-making with his temple brothers.” Clasping his hands over his knees, he peered up at Obed. “What? No festival leftovers? No tidbits for your hungry, wet, lonely friends?

Obed pointed to the main gate. “Let’s go.”

Groaning, Eoban stood, his mood turning as nasty as a wounded boar. “Couldn’t you even send a short message telling us you would be out . . . or rather in all night? I thought we meant more to you than to be left on the wayside by the first religious ceremony that came along.”

Rubbing the small of his back, Barak climbed to his feet and grimaced through a smile. “Glad to see you alive, Obed.” He shrugged. “I started to worry.”

Eoban rolled his eyes. “I was more worried we’d—”

Obed trotted away. “Ishtar’s not here. If he ever was—he’s dead now.”

Eoban leapt ahead and gripped Obed’s arm. “Wait a moment! We deserve an explanation.”

Glancing back at the temple, Obed shivered. “I have to leave—now!”

Smacking Eoban’s hand off Obed, Barak met Eoban’s gaze. “Let’s go.”

The three men trudged along the outer wall until they came to the main gate. Without ceremony, they passed through with a throng of merchants and herdsmen. As they reached the summit of the first hill, Barak peered over his shoulder at the stone city glinting in the morning sun. He glanced at Obed who had halted, his hand tapping nervously at his side. “They perform sacrifices there—don’t they?”

Obed swallowed and stared ahead. “Yes.” He turned and sprinted in the direction of the mountains.

Barak met Eoban’s gaze, and they started after Obed shoulder to shoulder.

Eoban shook his head as he ran, his eyes burning and his heart clenched tight.

Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good. ~Mahatma Gandhi

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Seven

—Lux—

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.”

Sienna waited.

“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.”

—OldEarth—

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.

“What then?”

“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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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Two

—OldEarth—

We Still Have Free Will

Zuri hated emotional chaos. He clumped to the base of the cave and plunked down on a rock. Propping his head on one hand, he stared at the creek rippling by.

A squirrel hippity-hopped along the water’s edge, then scrambled in the dirt, discovered a half-buried nut, and leaped forward. It dug furiously. A darker squirrel scampered from behind, chuckled, and sent the first squirrel, humpbacked, straight into the air.

Zuri laughed. “So, little quadrupeds, who’s stealing from whom?”

Ark meandered forward, rubbed his bulbous eyes in the bright light, and harrumphed. “Not me. Certainly.”

Zuri peered over his shoulder, one eyebrow rising. “You’d think we were all planning to kill each other the way Sienna acts.” He rubbed his neck. “I wish Sterling would send her back to Lux.”

“He would, if Teal would let him. Ungle would love to end her searing glares.”

“She’s only mad because he shot at her.”

“Yeah, but she never actually got shot—whereas Ungle—” Zuri dropped his gaze and sighed.

“You didn’t know.” Ark wrapped his tentacles across his lap. “Ungle justified his actions under the Crestonian rule of law—extreme measures are acceptable in the pursuit of knowledge.” He shrugged. “Hardly Sienna’s chosen creed.”

Zuri shifted and clasped his hands. “Are females on Crestar as…you know—?”

“Emotional?”

“I was going to say unpredictable. On Ingle, our girls are raised so much like the boys, that we’re almost interchangeable. They’re as strong as we are and have all the same technological advantages. There was a time when our race almost did away with sex types altogether.”

Ark’s eyes rounded. “You don’t say? I never read that.”

“It’s not one of our happier chapters. We almost killed each other.”

“Ah.”

He prodded Ark. “Like when Crestar did all that cloning—”

“Miserable affair.” Ark lifted a tentacle as if reciting a pledge. “Mutations are our salvation.” He chuckled. “How could we have been so naive?”

Zuri wiped his face and slipped off his helmet.

Ark nearly fell backward. “Oh, seamuck! I didn’t know you could do that. I thought you were losing your head.”

Zuri ran his fingers over the blond fuzz crowing his cranium. “I’m trying to grow hair.” He looked around. “Don’t tell anyone.”

“Why? For darkness’ sake, your race advanced beyond body hair ages ago.”

His gaze darting to the cave entrance, Zuri practically tiptoed to Ark’s side. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “There’s this Ingot woman—”

Ark frowned. “I thought you said there’s little discernible difference?”

“I said interchangeable—in respect to our professional life.” He sucked in a deep breath. “When it comes to our personal life…there’s a big difference. Trust me.”

Ark nudged him playfully, his smooth eyebrows waggling. “You like her?”

Zuri sunk onto the boulder next to Ark. “Passionately. She’s intelligent and funny…and very unpredictable.”

Ark leaned in, his gaze watery. “And beautiful?”

Zuri shrugged. “I don’t think about that. We’re all assembled parts…natural and otherwise.” Heat rose to his face. “The only thing that really matters is what’s inside— you know what I mean?”

Ark nodded. “I do. Unfortunately, I only experienced an attachment once…and it nearly killed me.”

“She left you?”

“Poisoned me.” Ark shook his head. “I gave up such associations after that.”

A shuffling near the cave entrance sent Zuri scuttling back to the other side of the cave, frantically tugging on his helmet.

Ark turned, his tentacles crossed just so.

Sterling staggered forward, bumbled to the creek fully clothed, and waded in.

Zuri straightened, his mouth dropping open. He started forward.

Ark reached out and held him back. “Let him be. Water is very soothing to a troubled soul.” He glanced at his terrestrial boots. “I should know.”

Sterling flopped down in the water, let it rush over his whole body for the space of twenty heartbeats, and then rose and straggled back to Ark and Zuri…dripping with each step. “I needed that.”

Ark waddled to the water’s edge. “I might join you, if only—” He peered back at Zuri. “You’ll help me get them back on?”

Feeling very much like an over-indulgent father, Zuri waved the Cresta to the water. “Go on. Get wet. I know you’ve been dying to.”

Ark beamed as he tugged off his boots and tossed them aside. He waddled forward and plunged in.

Sterling stood, still dripping, next to Zuri, and watched Ark splash around like a dolphin. “He’s really a child under all that blubber.”

Zuri glanced aside. “And you?” He leaned against the cave wall. “What’re you?”

Sterling raised a finger. “Just a moment. I can’t stand another drip. He shimmered and disappeared. Then he reappeared in exactly the same clothes, now perfectly dry. “Much better.”

Zuri flung his hand into the air. “So why the dramatic dunk—?”

“You need to look beyond the surface, Ingot.” Sterling started for the woods, glanced backward, and beckoned Zuri with a curt wave.

Zuri followed, uneasiness bubbling like a lava flow in his middle.

“I want to speak to you alone.” Sterling jutted his jaw toward Ark. “I knew the sight of dripping water would break his resolve.”

Tempted to take off his helmet again, if for no other reason than to unbalance Sterling’s perfect demeanor, Zuri scratched his exposed neck. “What do you want?”

Sterling frowned like a misunderstood child. “It’s not always a matter of want. Sometimes it’s a need. I need you to make Sienna leave—today.”

Crossing his arms, Zuri straightened. “I want her to leave as much as anyone, but she won’t listen to me. She thinks she’s protecting Teal—”

“She’s more likely to get Teal killed.”

Zuri tilted his head and waited. His scalp itched like crazy.

“Ungle is not one to be beaten at his own game. He’s deadly serious about studying the interaction between Ishtar and that bloody Chai. He’s practically leaking fluids to see them meet the first time.”

Zuri rolled his eyes. “I can’t stand it!” He swiped his helmet off.

Sterling’s gaze snapped to Zuri’s head, and he staggered. “By the Div—?”

Zuri gripped him by the arm. “I’m growing hair to impress an Ingot female who thinks that we should return to a more natural state.”

Sterling squared his shoulders and tugged his arm free. “Thank you for sharing that with me.” He ran his fingers through his own luxurious white locks. “Back to reality, shall we?”

Zuri tucked his helmet under his arm and twirled his hand in the air. “Go on.”

“The point is—I want Teal to see Chai and Ishtar up close and personal when the meeting takes place. And I don’t want him distracted. That’s why I went along with Ungle’s suggestion in the first place. But now—”

Walking backward, Ungle plodded into view slightly off-balance with his one shortened tentacle. His gaze fixed on Ark plunging in the creek like a salmon trying to swim upstream. He turned, ran into Sterling, and frowned. “Oh, there you are.”

Sterling gestured to Zuri. “Here we are.”

Ungle heaved a disgusted breath. “Yes, of course.” He peered at Sterling. “I’ve told them both—there’s no other option. Either she goes or I’ll—”

Zuri snorted. “I thought you were worried about that mystery race, the ones who wiped out a third of your planet.”

Ungle’s face tightened. “Who wouldn’t be?”

“Since Sienna supposedly worked for someone who worked for them…maybe you should send her—”

“She says that she was used by the Bhuaci, and she won’t make that mistake again.”

“Tell her that she’s going to get her revenge. She’ll use them this time.”

Ungle’s gaze slipped from Zuri to Sterling and back to Zuri. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected such duplicity from you. I thought all Ingots were bred to obey.”

“We may have been bred…so to speak. But we still have free will.”

“Do you? News to me.”

Zuri stomped forward, fury flushing to the roots of his fuzzy, blond hair.

Sterling swept between them, his arms outspread. “Oh, no, you don’t! I’ve got enough on my mind with Teal besotted by that—”

Teal sauntered around the corner, his gaze fixed on Sterling. “Besotted is a strong word…don’t you think?” He glanced at Zuri and frowned. “What happened to your—?”

Ungle waved a tentacle. “We’re wasting valuable time. Ishtar could be anywhere by now.”

Zuri scowled and pulled a datapad from his sleeve. “He’s still at the same location.” He held the pad up, facing the others. “I’ve been monitoring him.”

Sterling glared at Teal. “That’s your job.”

Teal folded his arms. “I know exactly where Ishtar is. And I know where Barak, Obed, and Eoban are too.”

Ungle swept a tentacle in the air dismissively. “Who cares about them?”

Teal stepped forward. “I think you would—if you really want to understand Chai.” He glanced around. “They’re heading directly for the stone city—Chai’s hometown.”

Sterling pursed his lips, his gaze flickering to the cave. “And Sienna?”

Teal turned and started back toward the creek. He called to the water-happy Cresta. “Ark! Time to go!” Glancing back he met Ungle’s intense stare. “I sent her back to Lux. She’s going to do research.”

Sterling closed his eyes and sighed in obvious relief.

Ungle nodded, a glint of pleasure sparkling in his bulbous eyes.

Zuri frowned. “Research—what?”

Teal jogged forward and helped Ark stagger out of the water. He called back. “The origin of our mystery race.”

Zuri dropped his head to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut.

“What people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.”
~Madeleine Albright

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Sixteen

—OldEarth—

Your Intensity Disturbs Me

Ark crouched over Ungle’s sprawled, green-splattered body and checked for life signs. One of Ungle’s tentacles ended in messy pulp. Ark snatched a tube from a bag slung over his shoulder and tore off the seal. Lifting Ungle’s unconscious head from the ground, Ark pulled on the breather helm and carefully poured the murky green liquid into the repository.

Standing beside Ark, Teal peered down at the scene, tense and waiting. Nearby, Zuri paced before a large boulder next to a winding stream. Sterling sat limply on the boulder, his head propped in his hands, looking sick and weak.

With a jerk and a snort, Ungle’s eyes fluttered open. He stared at Ark, a puzzled frown rippling across his face. “What’re—” Wincing in pain, he writhed, groaned, and lifted his injured tentacle. His eyes widened in obvious disbelief. “How—?”

Glancing aside, Ark barked an order at Zuri. “Get that medical kit you always carry around.”

Zuri froze, peering at Ark. “It’s for Ingots, not Crestas.” Glancing at the writhing tentacle, he shook his head and swallowed. “But I’ve got a decent sickbay onboard. Let’s go.” He glanced at Teal. “It’s not far, hidden in a cave.”

Ark backed out of the way as Zuri and Teal lifted Ungle’s body and half-led, half-carried him over the stream to a large cave.

Sterling followed, his head bowed and his hands clasped behind his back.

Snug in the cave, the ship gleamed like an oval blue-black jewel. The dripping walls housed colonies of bats and lichen. A few stalactites hung from the ceiling on the right, while broken stems showed where the ship had barreled through.

After tapping a key code, Zuri stood aside and the shiny bay door rose from the cave floor. A bright shaft of light directed their steps to the interior.

Once inside the Ingot ship, Zuri pointed to a small niche in the rear. A reclining chair with armrests embedded with wires, tubes, and assorted medical gear stood prominently in the center. A large console with three colored panels arched from the left wall.

Zuri adjusted the seat, and he and Teal dropped Ungle in place, directing his tentacles to the side and laying the injured limb on a rolling side table. Zuri waved Ark to the console. “It’s set up for Ingots, but there are overrides so it can be adjusted for the needs of other species. He glanced at Teal. “Though, I don’t know if we’ve ever used it on a Cresta before.”

Ark nodded, his gaze sweeping over the instrument panel. “I’ll make do.” He glanced up with a wavering smile. “We scientists are ingenious at this sort of thing.” He locked eyes with Zuri. “Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as it seems. Our tentacles grow back.”

Zuri closed his eyes and exhaled a long breath. “Yes, of course. I should’ve remembered.”

Teal strode up and peered at Ungle’s closed eyes. “I think he’s out again.”

Ark nodded. “Certainly hope so. I gave him enough painkiller to knock out the entire Cambial Zoo.” He rubbed two tentacles together and scanned the console. “I’ll just trim off the nasty bit, and in a few days, he’ll feel as good as new, though a little off-balance until it grows out again.”

Sterling plopped down on a swivel chair near the front and called back. “So, you want to explain what happened?” Zuri ran a hand over his gleaming helmet and sighed. “I didn’t know what he was doing. At first, I just figured he was another Cresta scout…odd after everything, but then I’m not always kept informed of changes. Still, he was out of order.”

Ark glanced up.

Frowning, Teal stepped over to Zuri, his hands on his hips. “So you blasted him? Why?”

“He kept shooting at birds. I couldn’t understand what he was doing. But then I remembered that your friend, the cute little Luxonian, liked to transform into an eagle—”

Ark dropped the scalpel, and it clattered onto the tray. “Oh blast!”

Teal pounded the wall console with his fist and the bay door slid open.

Sterling jogged forward. “Wait! You don’t even know if he actually hit her or where—”

Teal swung around, his eyes glowing in rage. “Then where is she?”

Sterling clutched his arm. “I’ll come with you.”

Teal shook Sterling away. “Not likely. You’ll only slow me down.” He swung out the door and charged into the glaring sunshine.

With an explosive huff, Zuri slapped his hand against his thigh. He glanced back at Ark. “I’ll go. You stay and keep an eye on these two.” His gaze swiveled from Ungle to Teal. “We’ve had enough accidents this cycle.”

Ark retrieved his scalpel and started trimming. “I’d say.”

~~~

Teal lifted Sienna’s limp body off the dusty ground and followed Zuri back to the ship.

As the two crossed over the threshold, Ark closed his eyes and muttered a long slew of Crestonian curse words.

Sweat poured down Teal’s face as he stumbled forward.

Sterling jumped in to assist.

Zuri jogged to the right and pointed. “Here’s another pullout chair—for emergencies.” He gripped a red handle and yanked it down. A smaller version of the chair Ungle occupied unfolded from the wall.

Cradling Sienna, Teal laid her down and brushed strands of hair from her face. “I don’t see any injury, but she won’t wake up.”

Sterling placed his hand on her forehead, closed his eyes, and frowned in concentration. With a long exhaling breath, he opened his eyes. “She’s still alive.” He nodded while his gaze rolled over her. “It’s good instinct to maintain the shape of your host environment.” He glanced at Teal. “She’s clever; I’ll give her that. Most would’ve panicked—but she knew it would be safest to appear human if she was injured and couldn’t travel.”

Teal glanced over at Ungle’s slumped form. “Is he going to live?”

Sitting in a padded chair against the wall, Ark waved a tentacle in droopy-eyed weariness. “Of course. It’s not a life-threatening procedure, just rather painful.” He yawned. “And tedious.”

Zuri fell into a chair on the opposite wall. “My body can take almost anything but—by the Divide—I’m emotionally exhausted.”

Sterling glanced at Teal. “Go pace around the ship or something. Your intensity disturbs me.”

Teal stalked over to Ungle and glared at his sleeping form. “I ought to kill him.”

Ark leaped to his feet. “Oh, no, you don’t! Not after I just spent worthy corpuscles keeping him alive.”

Zuri’s eyebrows rose.

Ark puckered his lips. “I had to give him a transfusion—to counteract the shock.” He blinked. “We’re a brilliant race but not terribly resilient.”

Teal nudged Ungle’s shoulder. “Wake up, Cresta. I have questions you need to answer.”

A long, drawn-out sigh from across the room turned their heads. Sienna whimpered and shivered.

Teal raced across the room and gripped her hand. “Sienna?”

Sterling stepped out of the way.

Her eyes blinking open, Sienna swallowed and opened her mouth to speak. No sound came. She frowned.

Sterling shrugged and glanced at Teal. “She’ll be fine. She had a hard landing but no serious injury. She’ll mend.”

A rush of relief flooded Teal as he caressed her hand.

“You understand, Sienna? You’ll be all right.”

Sienna stared at Teal as if she had no idea who he was, her puzzled frown etching deeper into her forehead.

Sterling laid his hand on her forehead and whispered under his breath.

Sienna closed her eyes, and her head fell gently to the side. “Let her rest. She’ll tell us what happened when she’s feeling better.”

Teal glared at Sterling. “I want answers—now.”

Ungle’s ragged voice rose like a cracked flute. “And you shall have them.”

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
~Voltaire

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