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…
For the rest of these episodes and others visit Kindle Vella Homestead by A. K. Frailey.
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?
Tarragon, sitting on a wide bench before the ship’s hatch door, bent low and tugged a new boot onto his three toed foot. He grunted with the exertion, but as it finally wiggled into place, he grinned with satisfaction. “There now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” He lifted his foot and eyed it carefully. “A little snug, but I can—”
A sudden blur rushing past his face followed by a thud shook him to the core. He yelped, “Sheesha!” Then he looked down at the body lying at his feet. A scantily clad woman. He frowned. “I know you.”
Groaning, the woman rubbed her face and opened her eyes. Amid exclamations of pain and irritation, she struggled to sit up. “You wouldn’t be interested in helping me to my feet, Cresta?”
As if to wake himself out of a dream, Tarragon shivered and thrust out a tentacle. “Mauve?” He peered at the ceiling. No hole. He glanced around. The bay door remained closed. “How did you get here? Any why didn’t you use the door, like everyone else?”
Climbing to her feet, Mauve’s eyes widened as her gaze traveled along her nearly bare body. Only a lightweight, shimmering tunic covered her body from shoulders to calves. “That blinking Mystery—What happened to my clothes!”
Tarragon recognized that he was not being asked a question so he declined any attempt to answer. Instead, he lifted his second boot and shook it in her direction. “Since you are here, I’d appreciate your help.”
Mauve slapped her forehead. “I fall into your ship, literally, and all you can think about is your boots?”
With a shrug Tarragon made his priorities clear. “The sooner I get this on, the sooner I can help you solve your mystery.”
Mauve swept her hand over herself and instantly appeared in a long red dress with wide sleeves, purple slippers, and a black belt. Her hair, arranged on the top of her head in a series of ornate braids, glistened in the garish light. She glared down at him, marring the perfect symmetry of her face. “I found him already. Who do you think did this?”
With a disgusted harumph, Tarragon tugged on the second boot. It slid into place, and he stood, testing his balance. Once secure, he pointed to the door. “Shall we? These beings not only have power, but a sense of humor as well.”
The bay door opened, sending light rays into the ship.
Mauve scowled. “If you think this was funny, I can find ways to tickle your insides.”
Alarmed, Tarragon stepped outside and lifted all four tentacles in an attitude of surrender. “I see where you might be annoyed, but still, you must admit, it was clever. He could’ve killed you. Instead, he merely humbled you.”
Mauve scampered down the incline and pounded across the wet sand to the mouth of the cave. She stared at the ripples of an incoming current. “He’ll have to try a lot harder than that!”
Tarragon plodded up beside her, his tentacles wrapped behind his back.
“They acted like a father and son. The boy is a fool. The father only plays one. I’d like to know a whole lot more. They could be useful.”
The sunlight sparkled over the water, glorious to Tarragon’s eyes. “I doubt you can bargain with them.”
With a thoughtful look, Mauve replaced her dainty slippers with tall boots and plodded forward. “I’ll kidnap the son. That’ll show oh-so-powerful-one who he’s playing with. The fool probably thinks that I’m as weak as a human, stupid as an Ingot, or as single-minded as a Cresta. He has a lot to learn.” She slogged toward the shoreline. “Hurry up if you want to watch me take the Mystery Being down a peg or two.”
Slapping a tentacle across his face, amazement shivered over Tarragon. He watched her scrabble up the beach and stomp in the direction of the Widow’s castle. Of course, I can always offer my services to the winner. Perhaps there could be an exchange—once I save his son…
Sterling stood beside Nova in a shadowed corner of the Widow’s great hall and watched the spectacle, entranced by the crowd’s childlike joy yet disgusted by their easy manipulation.
Abbas stood before the great fireplace and juggled three plates before a breathless crowd. To their amazement, he added a fourth plate. He grinned at Cerulean who, in common peasant garb, stood beside the high table. “Toss me that golden vessel!”
Hesitant, Cerulean glanced away from the Mistress’ gorgeous place setting and grasped a clay mug instead.
Scowling, Nova shoved past him, plucked the golden goblet off the table, and tossed it into the whirling mix.
Without missing a beat, Abbas caught it and juggled all four objects faster than ever.
The watching throng roared approval.
Sterling stepped behind Cerulean and gripped his shoulder. He spoke in an undertone. “Now toss in the mug.”
Cerulean threw in a perfect arc, and the mug whirled beautifully before smacking into the goblet, breaking the spinning cycle. The plates and mugs fell to the floor, smashing into uncountable splinters. The goblet rolled to the wall and stopped.
Abbas locked eyes on Sterling who grinned in return.
A disgruntled woman aired her disappointment, “Good plates ruined. For what, I ask?”
Quickly pulling a colored scarf from his sleeve, Abbas then ceremoniously flung it over the mess. He grabbed a tray off the table, scraped the mess on, held it aloft, and chanted, “Heza, hiza, meza, miza! Be renewed!”
He snapped the scarf away, and all four plates and the clay mug all appeared in perfect shape on the tray.”
Loud exclamations met his astonishing feat.
Smiling, Abbas placed the tray on the table. “The hand is quicker than the eye. You didn’t see what you thought you saw!”
He then bowed backward out the front door into the cool evening air.
Sterling followed with Cerulean and Nova trailing along behind.
Once well away from the well-lit hall and stepping into the long shadow of the curtain wall, Abbas turned and waved his followers along. He snuck inside the doorway of a flanking tower and climbed the steep steps at a faster rate than his apparent age suggested possible.
Anxiety tightening his chest, Sterling’s skin chilled in the evening air. How human. He lifted his hand, halting Cerulean and Nova in their tracks. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
Nova challenged, “But what if you’re not?”
“Then Cerulean is in charge. Now be a good changeling and obey a direct order from your superior.”
Her hands clenched, Nova stomped forward.
Cerulean gripped her arm, shaking his head.
Relieved, Sterling raced up the steps after the only person who had ever made him feel afraid.
Omega meandered along the edge of the cliff well aware that the Luxonian woman trailed twenty feet behind him. He had a lot on his mind. His father seemed easily annoyed of late, and that puzzled him. His father adored him. As did his mother. He was a perfect son. How could he not be? Yet, this evening, his father had told him to “go away” for a bit. What did “go away” even mean?
“Hey, you! Boy! Wait a moment. I need to talk to you.”
A strange sensation filled Omega. The sun had set and an evening glow still shown over the water’s edge, yet darkness filled him. He turned around and faced the nasally high voice.
Mauve trotted forward, heaving gulps of air. “Stay put a moment. I had to lose that stupid Cresta to have a private word with you.”
Omega peered over her shoulder. There, in the far distance, the Cresta plodded along, stumbling like a newly-hatched bird. “What’s he done that you should leave him behind?”
Mauve stopped before him, a fierce scowl marring her otherwise pretty face. “He’s nothing. Don’t bother about him.” She repositioned her face and attempted an ingratiating smile. “I’ve got a proposition for you—if you’d just allow me—”
“You’re the one who plays with the men?”
Mauve snorted, a grin replacing her smile. “I play with them as likes to play.” She shrugged. “Makes life meaningful—to experience everything while I’m here.” She sauntered closer, her hips swaying invitingly.
Omega stepped to the very edge of the cliff.
Her eyes glinted as she slid her hand along his chest.
Repulsed, Omega said the first thing that came to mind. “Father says you’re a leech.”
Her face contorting, Mauve lifted her hand. “I was going to be nice but—”
Suddenly Mauve’s body recomposed from flesh into clay, her face frozen in rage.
Heaving a long sigh, Omega appraised the life-like sculpture and patted the stiff cheek. Then nudged the composition over the cliff.
As waves crashed ashore, the clay figure whirled downward, then smashed to pieces on the wet rocks below.
Omega leaned over the edge. He clapped dust off his hands and turned away.
Nova stood in her bedroom before a full-length mirror dressed only in leggings and a short slip and stared at her perfect body. Unlike her Bhuaci mother, she didn’t have the power to shape shift. But she had been born with the preferred elfin face and figure of most Bhuaci girls.
She glanced aside at her round, white bed piled with Ingoti armor. Her father, Zuri, had renounced most of the technological advancements his race had adopted. But that would hardly stop her.
She tried on the chest guard first. Lightweight, it didn’t hinder her movements, though it added bulk to her lithe figure. She smiled. Black was definitely her color. She slipped the arm bands up over her elbows, first the right and then the left. Snug, but with the thick red bands, they definitely added a touch of class to her cuteness. She hated cuteness.
Next, she tugged on the boots. Heavier than her normal slippers, they forced her to plan her steps more carefully. With the added height and bulk, she nearly appeared intimidating.
A tap on the door knocked the smile off her face.
Mom or dad? Probably mom.
She sighed. There was no way she could take it all off in time.
And why should I?
“Open!” She placed her hands on her hips and faced her future.
In the open doorway, Kelesta stared at her daughter, her eyes rounded with horror. “What are you doing?”
Nova groaned. Her mom wasn’t stupid, but she could sure ask the dumbest questions. “I’m discovering my heritage.”
Like a sleepwalker, Kelesta glided into the room, her hands lifted. “Your father renounced the technology that invaded his body.”
Swinging her arms high, Nova exulted in testing her limits. “I haven’t attached anything. Yet. It’s just armor after all. Though I wouldn’t mind a few synaptic connections. That way I’d have at least a few advantages.”
Kelesta caressed Nova’s face, her eyes grieving. “Haven’t we always taken good care of you? There’s no need for Ingoti protection.”
Nova pulled away and stomped to the door. “I’m not like you, Mother. I can’t shapeshift whenever I feel like it, turning into a clawed beast or hiding in a hole.”
Kelesta stood in the middle of the room, her gaze falling to the floor. “You have no idea. Really. How unprotected we are.”
As if she smelled an intoxicating scent, Nova turned on the threshold and faced her mother. “How do you mean?”
“You’re so young. I wanted to wait to tell you…but…” Her gaze rolled over the mechanical hardware attached to her daughter. She stepped forward and held out her hand. “Let’s take a walk. By the oceanside, I can face old memories.
Still wearing her body armor, though without the boots Nova paced over the white sand keeping step with her mother.
The green-orange sun crested the waves, sending a sparkling glow over the water. Seabirds sailed overhead, calling to each other.
Her arm bands pinched, but she ignored that. She’d get a helmet next. One that came with implants so she could have direct access. Her heart pounded with the thought—There’s no stopping me. She stepped into the water and splashed the waves with her feet.
Kelesta sighed and faced the ocean as foaming crests ran over her toes and receded again. “Everything has a price. The Bhuaci learned this truth eons ago. No one knows exactly how we became shape-shifters, but everyone realizes that our abilities came at a cost.”
Perplexed, Nova wrinkled her nose. Something tickled her feet. She looked down at a school of fish darting about. Funny. They aren’t scared of me.
Kelesta’s voice took on a schooled tone, controlled and disciplined. “In the beginning, we were aimless, mere beasts, not unlike these fish. We lived as flightless birds for a long time and then, through some kind of gift or curse, we learned to use our wings. And not just our wings but our whole bodies in relationship to our minds. We discovered the connection between physical matter and thought. All too soon, we learned to manipulate our bodies’ matter and imitate any shape we wanted.”
Annoyed, Nova splashed her mother. “I know all this. But why you think it could ever be a curse is beyond me. If I could alter my shape, I’d become a bird right now and fly into the sky. Or become one of these fish and swim deep into ocean.” She jumped up and down, splashing everything within reach.
Allowing the drops to fall where they may, Kelesta peered up. “You’d fly into the sky and then what? You’d still be yourself. Your mood and attitude, your hurt and hate, would follow you just as much as your friendships and love.”
With a snort, Nova rushed deeper into the water, running against the oncoming waves. “I could protect myself from every danger, enjoy every sensation, experience life from a thousand perspectives.” She dove into the murky green depths ignoring her mother’s call.
Swimming against the current, Nova stared at the swirling bubbles and dancing seaweed. A huge blue-green fish with gold sparkles running down its back caught her eye. Thrilled, she paddled with her arms and legs to give chase.
The fish darted down, deeper into the gloom.
Nova knew that she must stay close to the surface and that her armor weighed her down, but desire flushed all reason aside. I’ve got time. Besides, mom’s still close. She arched her shoulders and dove deeper.
Suddenly, the flashy fish turned and peered at her through glowing eyes. It grew larger, until it was twice her size. Opening its mouth, rows of razor-sharp teeth snapped the water.
Panic clutched Nova. She raised herself vertically and tried to paddle upward, but tiny darting fish nipped at her feet and legs. Pain shot through her as terror took over. “Noooo!” Using every bit of her strength, she shot upward.
When her head broke the surface, she looked around. “Mom?”
No one. She was alone.
Wet and disheveled, Nova stumbled across the shore toward her home in the woods. Once in her room, she peeled off her wet armor and soaking underclothes. She wrapped herself in a warm robe and climbed into bed. Tossing and turning through the night, she brooded over her mother’s betrayal.
Three days later, Nova sat beside the window in the kitchen decorated with herb plants and primitive art and ate her grain cereal with cream and berries absorbed in plans for escape from her traitorous family.
Zuri paced in, a frown dominating his face. “Where’s your mother?”
“I have no idea.”
His scowl deepening, Zuri dragged a chair from beside the hearth and placed it next to his daughter. He clasped his hands and leaned forward. “I know something is going on between you and your mother. Though she won’t say anything, I know you both well enough to guess.”
Her appetite disappearing, Nova shoved her bowl onto the windowsill and crossed her arms. “Know everything about me, do you?”
“I know that armor excites you. Adventure beckons. And you’re tired of being treated like a child.”
Her interest snared, Nova tilted her head. A silent acquiescence.
“I was just like you.”
Nova rolled her eyes.
“And I have the perfect answer.”
A huff of air to hint that she only had so much patience.
“You’ll come with me to Earth. We’re being sent back—Teal and his son Cerulean are coming. No reason you shouldn’t attend.”
Excitement raced through Nova. “I can come and work? I’m not just a student observer?”
A grin broke over Zuri’s face. “You’ll take notes and help to present our finding to the council when it’s time.”
Rubbing her hands together, happiness flooded Nova.” Finally! I can do something worthwhile.” She glanced at her father. “Does mom know?”
The light dimmed in Zuri’s eyes. “Yes. She’s not happy about it, but she accepts my reasoning.”
Perplexed, Nova jumped to a new thought. “Can I wear my armor?”
“As much as you like.”
Her appetite renewed, Nova grabbed her half-eaten breakfast and stood. “I’m going to get a list of things I’ll need.”
Zuri nodded, his gaze distant.
Nova started for the door and then stopped. “What reasoning?”
Zuri glanced up. “We can do our best to protect you from the world. But only you can protect you from yourself.”
After laying her bowl in the sink, Nova stepped outside. She moved toward the rising sun as she crossed the courtyard to her room, a new thought plaguing her steps. Who betrayed who?
Zuri, wearing a course tunic over the simplest remnant of his armor paced along a worn path, the sun setting behind a distant, emerald-green hill.
With a flash, Teal appeared before him in a peasant’s outfit.
“There you are. I was afraid you’d have to wait till morning to see.”
Smirking, Teal bowed low. “Hello, Zuri. So glad we meet again.”
“None of that, now. We haven’t time. I want you to see this family! They’re magnificent and, to top it off, there’s been a murder. Some folks are running about insisting that Melchior’s son did it, but I hardly think so. Not the warrior type, if you know what I mean. I’m thinking it was the husband—though I have no—”
Teal faltered, his shape growing hazy. “By the Divide, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Zuri grabbed Teal’s arm and tugged him down the path. When they rounded a bend, a cottage stood before them, resplendent in evening hues.
“That’s Melchior’s place. He has a bunch of children, servants, and even a slave or two, yet he manages to keep his property intact and his head attached. In these parts, that’s something to be proud of.” He squinted in the failing light. “You all right? You look a bit…fuzzy.”
Teal lifted his hand and nodded. “Just been busy.”
Zuri glanced around. “Where’s Cerulean?”
“He’s taking care of Sterling. With strict orders to hurry him along, with or without Mauve.”
Teal rolled his shoulders. “His newest obsession.”
“You can say—”
A Bhuaci chime sounded.
Zuri tapped his chest and a holographic image of a Cresta with stringy yellow cilia drizzling from his head and dressed in a dark green bio-suit with matching boots appeared before them.
“Tarragon reporting for duty.”
Leaning toward Teal, Zuri dropped his voice low. “Ark’s son. Remember the pod…”
Teal nodded. He focused his gaze on the Cresta. “Thank you for being so prompt. But I thought we were going to meet here at—” He glanced at Zuri.
Tarragon waved a tentacle. “I wanted assure myself that someone would be there to greet me. I am still on board my ship, but I’ll shuttle down shortly.” He eyed Zuri. “If you’ll confirm the coordinates?”
Suppressing annoyance, Zuri pulled a datapad from his sleeve and tapped in the information. “Just be sure to stay out of sight. Your aircraft had better be native sensitive.”
“Of course. The Cresta are experts of disguise.”
Zuri chuckled. “Ark was anything but!” Realizing his mistake, a flush warmed his cheeks. “Sorry. No disrespect. I greatly valued Ark.”
Tarragon shrugged. “I hardly knew him.” With a smart salute, he signed off. The hologram evaporated.
Zuri slapped his face. “Oh, that went well, don’t you think?”
Looking haggard, Teal sighed. “He’s a hard one to figure. I’ve asked about him through the years, but he never responded, and Ark had little to offer. I thought he’d be at Ark’s passing-on ceremony, but he never showed. His mother did, though. Gave me an earful. More than I really wanted to know about Cresta—”
The pounding of horses’ hooves sent Zuri scurrying to a hedge row.
Teal blinked away and then reappeared at his side. “We’d better move further off. We don’t want Tarragon showing up in the middle of a family dispute.”
“Going to be a blinking challenge to train someone new. And now we have Sterling and Mauve to deal with.”
Teal shrugged. “It could be worse. We could have the Mystery Race on our heels. At least we’re safe there.”
Zuri glanced at the starry sky, a sinking sensation enveloped him.
Song, in her petite elven form, wearing a dark green tunic over grey leggings, strolled along the wooded glen, soft brown soil cushioning each step while pink blossoms waved in a gentle breeze. She stopped and breathed in the deliciously sweet scent of spring.
Butterflies sailed by as birds twittered from the branches: bluebirds, redhearts, and goldenhues. Even a pair of orangefires insisted on wishing her a good morning.
She smiled and bowed in the accustomed greeting between Bhuac and natures’ citizens.
A fierce greenhawk swooped in and, with its large bulky body, bristled, sending the gentler folk into a frightened frenzy. The joy-filled chirping turned to cawing and sharp screams of distress.
Her heart twisting, Song watched, helpless to alter the scene for though she ruled the planet, her influence in the wild only reached so far.
Pounding steps along the wooded path, turned her attention. A figure jogged forward, long black hair flowing over thin shoulders, clear eyes narrowed in concentration. A strong woman suffering from unaccustomed weakness.
Slapping her hand against her chest, the woman came to a skidding halt before Song, heaving deep to catch her breath. “They’re going back!”
Her heart clenched; Song froze. As if understanding the gravity of the moment, the feathered feud ceased, and silence descended. Only the sun continued to shine unabated. With a start, Song realized that she could not sense a thing. Even the ground under her feet had fallen away.
“Did you hear me?” The woman drew closer, her hand reaching, whether to awaken her mentor or grasp at needed strength, neither could guess.
Song nodded. “I heard.” She forced a calm smile. “It is good to see you again, Kelesta. Where is your husband and daughter?”
A darted glance at the sky and a facial spasm spoke louder than words. “They’ve gone too.” Her gaze fell. “Ark passed on and his son, Tarragon is taking his place.” She straightened her shoulders. “Teal is sick, and Sterling is…preoccupied. A Luxonian named Mauve has stolen his heart.” She sucked in a deep breath, readying herself for painful truth-telling. “Zuri wants to teach Nova about humanity’s true nature. Perhaps make room in her soul for—” Kelesta flapped her arms like a bird perched on the edge of flight. “Something.” She shrugged. “She certainly isn’t interested in me.”
Caught in a snare that had held her for much too long, Song wrapped her arm around the young Bauchi woman. “She loves you—she just doesn’t know it yet.”
With a muffled sob against the older woman’s shoulder, Kelesta gave way to tears. “She can’t love someone she doesn’t know. She refuses to even consider what Zuri and I offer.”
The sun, still on its ascent, shone bright from the clear golden sky. “Let’s return and have a morning cup with biscuits and honey-jam. You’ve come home just in time to help me face the coming storm. Humanity measures time in such small increments; they do not see the landscape of their days. They are about to undergo a momentous change, and they have no idea of the long-range repercussions.”
“But what about Zuri and Nova—and all the rest?”
Song took Kelesta’s hand and started down the path, her feet padding on the soft, springing soil. “They must learn too. It is what all the living must do or else die in stagnation.”
Kelesta brushed a low hanging branch out of her way, pink blossoms falling on the path, as she kept in step with Song. “But what if she learns the wrong lesson and refuses her father and me? What if we lose our daughter?”
Tears aching behind her eyes, Song looked to the trees and silently beckoned to the birds. Give me strength. “It is the highest praise of our creator to give us freedom.” She squeezed her friend’s hand as the birds burst into fresh song. “It is our trial to endure whatever they choose.”
Chasm stood on the baked, pounded ground and stared at his shoes, profoundly aware that they were several sizes larger than the others lined up beside his. A cool breeze cascaded over his hot body. He could hear his mother’s words loud and clear, “Don’t get overheated, boyo, cause I can’t find any glaciers to cool you off this time of year.”
He forced his smile in check.
The kid next to him squirmed.
Chasm nudged him. “Don’t move, Oleg, or he’ll kill us.”
The boy heaved a strained, exasperated sigh.
Coach screamed, “Hey, you two! Give me five more!”
Oleg’s eyes widened with horror.
Chasm choked. “Wasn’t my fault!”
The twenty-eight boys held the line, observing in constrained silence as Chasm awkwardly led the smaller boy around the track, taking tiny steps to keep pace with his companion’s short strides.
Giggles broke the tense silence.
Coach, his arms crossed high over his barrel chest, stood on the sidelines grinning, his jaws masticating contraband chewing gum.
The blazing Luxonian sun seethed in a white sky, heat piercing through protective covering. Even the best eye protection was poor defense against the damaging rays.
A wonder more of us don’t go blind. Chasm wiped sweat off his brow as he jogged forward, his arms limp at his side. Three more…
Chasm reached out.
The boy fell limply in his arms.
“Drop him and finish your laps!” Clearly, coach enjoyed his work.
The watching boys froze, stiff as petrified rocks.
So many times, he’d come home burning with humiliation, a sorry excuse for a son, but his mother’s nudge combined with a healthy snort, always revived his drooping spirits. “Think you got it rough? Try being a giant woman! Then you’d know what rough looked like up close and personal. Giant guys are fine. But giant gals scare the hell out of most everybody, even Luxonian shape shifter-types. Lordy, they can morph into Ingoti Lava Lizards, but a seven-foot human woman sets ‘em giggling in weird ways.” Her black eyes flashed, and her ebony skin glistened as she jutted her chin, contempt oozing through every pour. Until a glint of humor discharged the poison. “Should thank their lucky suns I’m so good natured, or they might not be so powerful now.”
Chasm knew the story, oft repeated, how she managed to chase off a strange ship that landed in one of the busiest intersections of the capitol. No one knew who the aliens were or why they’d come. But the Luxonian crowd that gathered round had been profoundly grateful for Adah’s help. Unexpected as it was.
Being the only refugee over seven feet tall, many boys looked to him for help. Chasm didn’t mind, but he wasn’t sure what to do most of the time. He looked around for help.
Coach sauntered forward. Unlike most Luxonians, his attitude sparked with resentment at the outsiders. Even though the human refugees had originally come to Lux by invitation, coach narrowed his eyes at every specimen he met, especially the boys he forced out under the sun “to keep them fit and healthy” as his job description decreed.
Killing us with kindness.
Chasm gripped Oleg’s limp body tighter.
Rex, a lanky kid, not nearly Chasm’s size but with an outsized spirit that towered above the average stepped from the disciplined line. “We’re done here.”
Coach turned his full glare on Rex’s impassive, staring eyes. “You think so?”
“How about I make you all do ten more?”
Rex peered along the line of watching boys.
Everyone knew that they lived at the mercy of their hosts—Luxonians who had accepted the burden of caring for a dying race of beings—but resentment had elbowed its way in over the years, making humans not so welcome.
Chasm’s heart clenched as his gaze darted from Rex to Oleg’s reviving form.
Oleg shook himself free and stood on shaky legs. He blinked as he stared at the coach. “Think you can kill me?”
Coach’s amused glance spoke volumes.
Rex waved at the line of boys ahead with a formal bow. “He can try. But we don’t have to let him.” He sauntered off the track.
The line wavered, eyes following but feet still.
Oleg gripped Chasm’s arm. “Let’s go.” He strode after Rex, panting but determined.
As the sound of footsteps padded after them, Chasm’s heart swelled. No matter his size, he finally filled his shoes. No glaciers needed.
Riko couldn’t believe his eyes. His nostrils or his ears either, for that matter. He stared at the gray-walled room filled with bassinets, child-sized beds, and three full-sized beds and promptly slipped into shock.
The cacophony of sounds smashed against his ears like an out of tune orchestra that has no intention of ever playing the same composition—each rising burst out-screaming, crying, whimpering, or wailing every other.
The stink gagged him. He pressed his hand to his nostrils and swallowed back bile. This is literally a shitty situation.
He tried to count the babies kicking their arms and legs, the tiny pale faces peering over the edge of their bed rails, and the little bodies running in circles in the center of the room, but dizziness engulfed him.
One teenager stood in the center of the room while the little ones ran circles around him gleefully. He waved his hand like a conductor and grinned, apparently unconcerned that madness reigned.
A middle-aged woman bustled forward, her hands extended. “You must be Riko!”
Nodding, unable to take his eyes off the insane circus, Riko merely assented to the truth of the statement.
“I’m Marge. Shwen told me all about you. I’m so glad you’ve come.”
Dragging his attention off the children, Riko peered at the woman. “Shwen?”
“She’s a Bhuaci healer. One of the best, if reports are true. Word of you met her ears, and she passed the information to me.”
With a shiver, Riko managed to focus on Marge. “I don’t understand. Why am I here?”
A screaming boy yanked his attention across the room. A short, buxom woman hurried over and swooped the distraught child into her arms, rocking him with all the force of a turbo engine at high speed.
Marge tapped Riko’s arm. “Come with me, and we can talk privately.”
Struggling against rising nausea, Riko marched after the matronly figure.
They exited the one-story building through a red back doorway and entered a lovely garden surrounded by multicolored rose bushes, flowering trees, and a tall, woven fence.
Marge led the way to a wooden bench and sat, heaving a relieved sigh. “Lord, have mercy. This is the first time I’ve been able to rest today.” A gentle, depreciating smile wavered on her lips. “I’m really too old to be a mother to such a brood, but someone has to love them.”
Riko shook his head. “Where do they come from?”
Marge shrugged. “Everywhere. And nowhere. At least no one will admit to their existence. Some are Ingot rejects. Others were lost in transport and forgotten.”
“They’re all Ingots then?”
“Not all, but most, yes. A few humans among the lot.”
“I didn’t see any techno-armor—”
“Most never had the implants, or those that did, didn’t adjust well. In any case, we have them now, and we’re trying to manage as best we can without such barbaric advancements.”
Despite the ironic humor, weary depression settled over Riko. “Why isn’t the Inter-Alien Alliance helping you?”
Leaning back, resting her hands in her lap, Marge looked into the sky and snorted. “No one wants them. The Inter-Alien Alliance has enough to manage without dealing with unwanted babies.” She shrugged.
Apprehension needled Riko. “But you asked me to come today—?”
Taking a deep breath, Marge sat up and slapped her hands on her thighs. “Yes. I have one Ingot teen that needs special assistance. Clearly, he is too old to stay here, but he’s not ready to move on his own.” She stood and started to stroll the parameter of the enclosed garden. “I found a good woman who is willing to take him in, provided that he finds gainful employment. She’s struggling to raise her own three after her husband was killed in a transport accident.”
Riko fell in step beside Marge and thought back to the room with the teen standing in the center. “You mean the boy—”
“His name is Wendell. We don’t know much about him, where he has been, or how he found us. He just showed up at the door one day looking lost and confused.” Marge stopped and laid her hand on Riko’s arm as if to emphasize her point. “But he never looked or acted pitifully. He has complied with everything we’ve asked. He was the one who started the children running in circles around him every day.”
Riko reared back. “Does that help?”
“Yes, marvelously! They are so much calmer after they’ve had a good run. I bring them out here sometimes but only in small groups, or they’d tear this place to shreds. They are still a bit out of control.” She sighed and reconvened her stroll.
Riko stroked his chin, pondering the question he knew was coming. How could he say yes? But more importantly, how could he say no? The datapad on his wrist chimed, alerting him to the lateness of the hour. He stopped. “Can we go back in?”
Marge nodded, solemn, and silent.
This time the noise and smell didn’t shock him as it had at first. Either it wasn’t as bad as he had imagined, or he was getting used to it. He hoped he wasn’t getting used to it.
Wendell stood leaning over one of the beds. He covered and uncovered parts of his face in a rhythmic pattern.
Perplexed, Riko strode closer.
The child in the bed grinned as she imitated Wendell’s every move. When he covered his eyes, she covered hers, at least partially. One eye peeked out, watching for the next step. When he covered his nose, she did the same, giggling.
A lump formed in Riko’s throat. He stepped up and laid his hand on Wendell’s shoulder. “I hear that you’re looking for a job.”
After patting the little girl’s head, Wendell turned his attention to Riko. “Need work for the new mom.” He smiled, innocence incarnate.
With an inward groan, Riko thrust his hand out. “I happen to be looking for a boy to help me at the café.”
Wendell stared at Riko’s outstretched hand and tilted his head, perplexed.
Sighing, Riko grabbed Wendell’s hand and shook it. “It’s a human expression, a way of sealing a deal. You’ll work with me at the Breakfastnook, starting tomorrow. That way your new mom can rest easy, and you can get out of this madhouse.”
“Madhouse?” Wendell glanced around. “Not mad. Only sad.”
For the first time since his mother died, Riko blinked back tears. “Yeah, well, you’ll come early, okay? Marge will give you directions. It’s not far.”
Wendell grinned. “I go there. Tomorrow. Work early. Come here. Run kids. Not sad.”
Swallowing the urge to sob like one of the babies, Riko nodded and cleared his throat. “A good plan.” He turned and hustled to Marge’s side as she placed a baby in a high chair with a plastic bowl filled with bright colored cereal.
“I expect him bright and early in the morning.”
Peering through exhausted eyes, Marge smiled. “Thank you.”
Riko turned and fled out the doorway.
Once safely back at the café, Riko threw himself into the bustling dinner crowd as they ate and chattered, making a pleasant raucous.
He thought back to the orphanage. Funny, but he couldn’t recall the noise or the stink. Only the smiles. Not sad at all.
Like all Ingots, Lang’s body from the neck down was encased in techno-armor, but her form-fitting suit outlined the fantasies of multiple beings
She peered at the photo and had to ask—“Was I ever young?”
Riko, a slim Uanyi, could not say. He sat behind his desk with three saucepans lined up along the edge, a large datapad front and center, a holograph pad on the left, and a half-eaten slice of carrot cake on the right. Two baskets of colorful plants hung in front of a large window that now only reflected the outside security light.
Lang laid the photo on Riko’s desk and stared pointedly at the pots. “You keep your kitchen utensils close at hand, eh?”
With a shrug, Riko stood and strolled over to a small cooler unit. “I’m ordering new. Wendell tries, but the kid is hard on kitchenware.”
“I thought he just worked the tables.”
“He only has to look at a pot and it falls to the ground, dents, cracks to pieces…I don’t know. It’s like the kid has a magnetic storm following him everywhere he goes.”
Lang shrugged. “He was a reject that his mama saved. Few Ingots get through infancy—”
Riko hauled two cold drinks out of the cooler, snapped them open, and handed one to Lang.
Lang eyed the bright blue drink and grinned. “Thanks. I was feeling a little parched.”
“How about you?” Riko snapped up the photo. “This is old. Somebody treasured it. Most people only have digital memories.” One eyebrow rose. “Especially Ingots.”
Lang took a long swallow and leaned on the back of a dark brown office couch. “I was a reject too. You’d be surprised how many of us there are. In my case, I was borderline, and because I had a pretty face, they let me through. Never knew my mama or daddy DNA. That’s why Wendell is so different. His mama should never have known. She must’ve been from one of those back-to-nature groups. They practically stripped themselves naked, then tried to raise their young the old way.”
“But someone took this—” Riko waved the photo and took a swig from the bottle.
“Wasn’t any family relation—”
A knock on the door turned their attention.
Another quick drink and Riko strode over and swung open his office door.
Wendell stood in the hall between the café kitchen and the office, sheepish but smiling. “I fixed sink. Everything all cleaned up.”
Riko nodded. “Good.” He jogged to his desk and swiped one of the pots from the line. “Give your ma this. I decided to go with another set, so she can use it. No point in throwing it out.”
Wendell accepted the pot, cuddling it in both arms, a grateful servant of a kind benefactor.
Riko shuffled his feet, awkward kindness hindering his usual impatience. “You can go home now. See you in the morning.”
Reciting from memory, Wendell raised his eyes to the ceiling and pointed emphatically, his voice imitating Riko’s command tone. “Bright and early!”
The two grinned at each other.
The depth of the shared moment almost broke Lang’s heart. As Riko closed the door, still grinning, Lang lifted the photo again. “So tell me again—how’d you get this?”
“It was on my desk this morning.” He took a final swig, wiped his lips, and met Lang’s stare. “Either someone is having a little fun with us, or we’d better keep our eyes open.”
Lang drained the last of the blue liquid. “Maybe both.” She shrugged. “But as a reporter, I’d sure like to know who—” With a staggering step, Lang fell onto the couch. “Oh, God!”
Riko ran to her side, his eyes wide, frightened. “What?”
“There was a man…he looked like a man. But now…I wonder.” She dropped her head in her hands, her gaze roving to Riko’s face. “Do you believe in the supernatural?”
Riko choked. He yanked open the recycle depository and tossed in the two empty bottles. “I believe there’s more to the universe than we see or understand if that’s what you mean.”
A tumble of emotions swirled through Lang’s system. “I mean an intentional being—beings. Alive and willful.”
“Could be…but more.” Lang rose; logic overthrowing confusion. “Like the fact that you and I met, that Faye and Taug are buddies, that Cerulean even exists…the million and one oddities, proving that more than mere chance defines out fate.”
Riko dropped onto the couch wearily. “You asked if you’d ever been young…well, I grew up in a war zone; my ma was killed trying to protect a way of life that no longer existed, and I certainly never felt young.” He met Lang’s eyes. “Never.”
Lang plunked down next to Riko, their shoulders touching. “Me neither. I was plucked out of the Ingot world by some unknown hand and trained as a reporter before my synapses were set. My body has always been my biggest asset, but collected nerves saved my life. Yet, I’ve always felt sad.”
In uncharacteristic generosity and intimacy, Riko clasped Lang’s hand. “Me too.”
The sun had crested the horizon as Derik ran his fingers along the back of the park bench, knocking the melting snow to the ground. He shivered in the morning chill, especially without his heavy coat, but he didn’t care. He wrapped his stiff fingers around the dagger in his pocket, comforted by the smooth handle. It reminded him of the dissecting knives in the lab, and he found this oddly amusing. Starting off at a trot, he jogged across the street, his gaze down, but his mind focused. Someone jostled him roughly. Glancing up, his mouth dropped open. Justine grabbed his arm with more force than he thought necessary. “Justine?” He shook his arm free. “What’re you doing here? I left you a message—”
“Like an idiot. You think you can murder a Cresta and no one will find out? You’ll be hunted to—”
“Can’t you see? It’s the only way. I can’t marry you till I know that we’ll have a chance at living a normal life—even an abnormal life. Taug’s a lying—never mind. It’s over. I’m taking matters into my own hands.”
Justine ran her fingers through her wind-rippled hair with a long sigh. “My perfect plan—blown to smithereens.” Gripping his arm, she nudged him toward the street. “Come with me.”
“To your place. You’re going to pack some necessaries while I shock you with my life story, and then we’re going to the nearest transport and head off-planet.”
Derik stood frozen.
Justine jerked his arm, knocking him off balance. “I’m not in a negotiating mood, sweetheart. Let’s go.”
As soon as Derik opened his apartment door, Justine barged ahead, her gaze sweeping the premises for any sign of intrusion. After a quick run-through, she returned to the living room and plopped down on the couch with a sigh. She patted the cushion next to her. “Sit.”
Derik frowned. “You’re beginning to sound a bit too much like Taug for my taste.”
Justine snorted. “You don’t know the half of it.”
His hands on his hips, his legs braced wide apart, Derik jutted his chin forward. “I’ve already had more than a few shocks today. Go ahead, see if you can surprise me.”
Justine stared at the ceiling. “You’re not making this easy.”
Derik clenched his hands together and wrung them like a towel. “I already had my day nicely planned. I was going to gut Taug like the animal he is, collect you, and we’d head to a Bhuaci settlement.” He thrust a hand deep into his pocket and retrieved a data-chip. “See, our transport’s all arranged. But now—”
Justine chuckled. “Don’t worry, I’ll disarrange all your plans in a moment. But keep the data-chip. You’ll need it.” She jumped to her feet. “Give thy soul air, thy faculties expanse; love, joy, even sorrow—yield thyself to all….”
“Forget it. A noble sentiment perhaps but too painful to endure.” She cupped Derik’s hand in hers and stroked it, her voice softening. “I’m not human, Derik. Not even close.”
The smile that spread across Derik’s face morphed into an inane grin. He started giggling and was soon doubled over in hysterical laughter. It took him several moments to gain control of his heaving shoulders. “Really? You honestly think I didn’t know? I figured something…though Clare was kind enough to color in the details for me.”
“Clare told you?” Justine’s confused scowl darkened as she turned away. “That wasn’t her place.”
“Place or not, I’ve known for a while. And what’s more, I haven’t cared for a moment.” He waved an imploring hand at her back. “You seriously believe that I, a mixed-breed, half- Cresta would care that you’re a half-breed, human-android?”
Turning, Justine folded her arms across her chest. “You have a delicate way of putting things, Derik.”
Derik plunged across the room and gripped Justine by the shoulders, his gaze delving into hers. “We’re made for each other.”
Justine closed her eyes and leaned in, her forehead resting on his shoulder. “I wish it were that easy.”
Derik rubbed her back, pressing her closer.
Justine pulled away, all business. “Killing Taug won’t help. You need an escape.”
“What’re you thinking?”
“Take that transport. I’ll deal with Taug.”
“Like hell! He’s my enemy, not yours. You don’t even know him.”
Justine’s arms dropped to her sides. “Now’s when I shock you—ready? I knew Taug before you were even born. He was at the Inter-Alien Alliance trial that found me guilty of war crimes. He observed my sentencing and was the one who awoke me seventy years later. Now, he asks only one little favor to keep me out of prison—kill you.”
Derik fell back against the sofa and slid to the ground.
Justine knelt beside him. “You can still escape. I’m not going to kill you. I never was—”
“You stepped in front of that autoskimmer on purpose. I remember…I wondered…I didn’t care.” Derik’s shoulders shook as he dropped his face into his hands. “If I were dead—” He looked into Justine’s eyes, tears running down his cheeks. “Kill me.”
Justine’s jaw tensed. “Shut up!” She jumped to her feet. “I have a plan. And it doesn’t involve killing anyone. You’re going to take that transport, and I’ll take care of Taug—”
A snort made them turn around. Taug shuffled through the doorway. Three Crestas stood guard behind him. “No need. Taug can take care of himself.”
Governor Right smirked at her datapad, elbows propped on her desk. “Screwed up didn’t you, little fellow? So, you weren’t as smart as your specimen. Funny, how that always happens. We think we have our options covered, then along comes a surprise element.” She tapped her datapad, and her secretary’s face appeared on the wall screen. “Cancel today’s appointments. A private matter, so you don’t need to tell anyone. Just say I’m indisposed. Let ‘em chew on that.”
She gathered a couple of small objects from her desk and placed them discreetly within easy reach on her person. She patted her hip with a flicker of a smile and headed out the door.
Ambling down the hallway, she nodded at a few faces, her glazed expression denoting her disinterest in conversation. As she reached the elevator, she waited for it to empty and then started forward. Turning around inside, pleased with her isolation, she was startled by a whoosh just before the automatic doors closed. Without turning her head, she knew exactly who occupied the small space with her. She trembled.
With a swallow, Governor Right tried to make her voice sound natural. “I avoid all unnecessary pleasantries. It takes too much time.”
“This won’t be pleasant, so you won’t lose a moment.”
Governor Right closed her eyes.
Vandi crowds bustled about in a holiday mood. The next day would begin the Inter-Alien combined Winter Festival and Religious Observation Season. The fact that it began nearly at the same time as the OldEarth Christmas Season irritated some, but since a lottery determined the date, few beings felt the need to argue the point. After all, every day was meaningful to someone. Christians considered it a sign from God. Others smirked at the very idea. The rest simply enjoyed the opportunity for paid leave and a few days of fun.
As Taug slogged through the wet snow behind Justine and Derik, he kept his weapon hidden from view. His three well- paid guards shuffled behind, their tentacles hidden under shapeless capes meant to appear inconspicuous. Only a few distracted stares came their way, which they ignored with icy politeness.
As they reached the middle of the main street, Justine scanned the environment. The streets were packed. Her heart froze. A group of children huddled outside a shop in serious consultation. Her gaze zoomed in. She instantly recognized the little boy’s face. Glancing at Derik, she wondered what he had looked like as a child. She blinked in the sudden realization that she had never been a little girl. The loss hit her like a Dustbuster blast to the chest.
Taug stepped between them. “This’ll do.” He gazed innocently at Derik. “I’m sorry. But I was always honest. You know why you were created, and you know why you must die. It’s as simple as that.”
A figure strode forward.
Taug’s eyes narrowed at the daring approach.
“Not so simple.” Wearing little more than a short-sleeve shirt, a pair of jeans, and slip-on shoes, oddly incongruous to the surrounding pedestrians bundled in heavy winter clothes, Bala stopped in front of Taug. He merely glanced at Justine and Derik. With a wave, he motioned Taug’s weapon aside. “Cerulean sent word that Derik was in trouble. Clare’s busy getting warrants and all that legal stuff. I’m here to see that no one gets hurt in the meantime.” He pointed to the shuffled Cresta footprints and nodded. “You made it pretty easy to follow you.”
Taug aimed his Dustbuster at Derik. “He’s is past all trouble. Even he agrees. Don’t you, Derik?”
Derik stepped away from Justine and thrust out his chest, making an easy target. “It’s better for one man to die than for the innocent to—”
Bala shot a glance at Justine. “Oh, brother! Any other ideas?”
Justine shook her head. “I had planned the perfect escape when Taug showed up.”
Pulling a dented Dustbuster from his back pocket, Bala shrugged. “Well, let’s see if we can work together. Back off, Taug, and tell your—”
Taug’s warning shot flew wide, blasting an innocent tree to bits. Bala rolled to the ground as shrieks filled the air.
Justine shoved Derik to the side and then lunged at Taug, but Derik gripped her foot from behind, and she slipped in the mushy snow.
Bala slapped his weapon free of snow, using words that would have shocked his mother.
Derik released Justine’s boot and scrambled to his feet, ready to tackle Taug.
Sirens screamed their pulsating warning as a sleek, well-armored vehicle skidded to a stop. The door flew open, and Governor Right stepped out, her arms raised dramatically. Her gaze raked through the frightened crowd.
Taug’s guards melted into the throng.
Bala lowered his weapon and stared, open-mouthed, as if the governor were a mirage.
The governor’s voice rang over the cacophony. “It’s all right, citizens. I’ll protect you. Please, go about your business. This incident is well in hand.” Her stiff smile matched her glassy stare.
When the crowd shook off its fright and began to circulate again, she dropped her gaze and glared at Taug. “Idiot.”
Taug shuffled forward. “Hardly. If you hadn’t interfered, at least some of us would have died, and Justine would have taken the blame.”
Her eyes roved over the small assembly. “Which one?”
Taug shrugged. “Which one which?”
Governor Right’s eyes flared. “The crossbreed, fool.”
Derik stepped forward, his expression haggard and lost to the world. “That would be me.”
With a snort, the governor marched forward and dug her fingers into his shoulder. “A prisoner is as good as dead in my book.” Governor Right shoved Derik toward the open car door.
She waved Bala’s approach away and glanced at Taug, sweeping her eyes toward Justine. “Do with it as you will. Take it apart if it pleases you. Just never let it rise again.”
Justine stretched her legs at an angle as she leaned back on a padded chair in front of a well-appointed desk. A pull-down electron microscope specially fitted to Cresta physiology hung directly overhead. She toyed with a bio-sample box as she watched Taug divest himself of his heavy coat. “Does it bother you that badly? The cold, I mean?”
Taug shivered. “Horrible! It never drops below freezing on my planet. The average temperature is biologically perfect and the range is slight, so we rarely worry about seasonal preparations. Just wet and dry as the rotation determines.”
His eyes glowed softly, curiously. “You feel cold, then?”
“Not like most people. But I have sensors that tell me what I’m feeling. I react according to my host’s expectations. In winter, I wear sweaters and a coat to blend in.”
“Lucky you.” Taug plopped down on a couch across from the desk. He pushed a button and a wall section slid away, revealing a small fireplace. He tapped his datapad and colorful flames burst forth, undulating with glowing heat.
Justine grimaced. “A bit showy, don’t you think?”
“Nothing like your paintings and OldEarth decor.”
Justine pursed her lips. “You’ve been to my home?”
“When you weren’t there, naturally.”
With a dramatic yawn and a stretch, Justine rose and paced across the lab. She circled back and stopped, staring at the wall tank. “So, I want him alive and you want him dead. In either case, we need to get him back. Any way we could manage this without killing anyone or setting off an interplanetary war?”
Taug stroked his chin with the edge of his tentacle. “Yes, I was just considering my options. Mitholie will send someone to collect me soon.”
Justine spun around. “Collect you?”
“Derik and you are not the only ones being threatened with annihilation. I’m beginning to think—we all are.” Leaning back, he closed his red-rimmed eyes. The next moment, he opened them sleepily and swerved his gaze to Justine. “Governor Right knows things without my telling her, and she appeared a bit worried, did she not?”
“Oh, dark waters, no! They’re doing their best to appear shocked by every new event. No, I think we have a player in this game we know little about.”
Justine stiffened. “My creator?”
Taug sucked in a breath and frowned. “I hope not.”
Justine strode across the room and bent over Taug, staring into his golden eyes. “Why?”
“Because then we’d all be as good as dead.”
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe