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?
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.
Tarragon blinked in the blinding laboratory light, lifted a scalpel, and faced his father who lay still as a petrified tree on the table. “This won’t hurt much. I just need to get a proper sample to see what we’re dealing with.” He grinned. “You don’t mind?”
Ark huffed. “I’m not going anywhere on these blasted feet.” He flapped one tentacle. “Can’t even swim with all the pain.” He lifted his head and scowled at his son. “Just samples, mind you, I don’t want to have to regrow anything in a hurry.”
Bobbing his large bulbous head, his body tingling with heady responsibility, Tarragon started at the head and cut minuscule skin samples from all over his father’s mottled body. Circulation was clearly off, though his internal organs appeared to be functioning normally. His favorite Bhuaci hymn started low his chest and broke out in a vibrating hum across his vocal cords.
“What—are you doing?” Ark might have just run into a naked human frolicking on the artic tundra.
Startled into silence, Tarragon cut deeper than intended and sliced a significant portion of his father’s heel. “Whoops. Well, that’s a healthy sample!” He laid the scalpel on the standing tray and stepped aside. “I’ll just take a quick look—”
“You’ll help me get up first.”
“Oh, yes, of course.”
Groaning, Ark strained as his son pulled him to a sitting position. “I wish Zuri were here. He knew how to get me places without pulling my tentacles to pieces.”
Tarragon trotted around the bed, and, using all his tentacles, braced his father, then aided him across the room to soft couch.
Ark plopped down with a loud squelch.
Tarragon clapped his tentacles together, ready to get back to work. He collected the labeled slides. “If you’ll excuse me—”
Ark sighed. “You hardly ever talk to me anymore.”
Squinting, Tarragon peered at his father. “We never talk.” He trotted to the molecular scan embedded in the back wall and pulled down a survey tray. He placed the slides in a neat row. “We exchange information.”
Rubbing the sliced bit on his forehead, Ark grimaced. “What I wouldn’t give to see Teal and Zuri again.”
“Teal hasn’t been able to visit since his injury. Why he thought he could subdue an earthquake is quite beyond my understanding. Even with my limited knowledge of planetary geophysics, I would’ve advised him to stay clear—”
“He thought he could save lives—lots of human lives.”
“Even Luxonians aren’t that powerful. It was a rash and foolish act that cost him the last useful years of his life.” Tarragon shrugged. No use revisiting the past. He shoved the slid into place and peered at the enlarge screen on the wall.
With a harumph, Ark rocked back and forth until he got enough momentum to shoot to his feet. Pain shot through him like a thousand darts. “Oh, God!” He collapsed back onto the couch.
Passionless, Tarragon stared at him. “There is no need for histrionics. I will have the results ready for you in just—” He rapidly slid one slide in after another until he had exhausted the selection. He blinked at the screen, hummed quietly, and then turned and faced his father. “I know what’s wrong.”
Ark slapped one tentacle along the side of his face, a veritable picture of impatience. “Well, tell me.”
Being naturally pale, Ark didn’t have much color to lose, but what he did have soon disappeared entirely. “What?”
“I’ve seen it a few times before—it’s called Travelers Travails. We don’t know exactly where it comes from, but it usually starts in the skin, threads its way throughout the body, and eventually attacks the major organs. I’d say you have about half a cycle left.”
Ark closed his eyes, a tear trailed down his cheek. “I’m not ready. I still have so much to do.” His eyes popped open. “Teal needs me! Zuri needs me. Humanity needs us—together!”
A childhood memory floated through Tarragon’s mind, himself as a pod swimming in a large tank, watching his father plod off with Zuri. He had begged his father to stay with every ounce of his being but to no avail. Ark hadn’t even looked back. He had been so intent on his mission to Earth. Always Earth.
“Someone will take your place. We’re never as indispensable as we think.”
Ark groaned, his shoulders heaving. “I need them.”
For a moment, Tarragon felt an uncomfortable flicker. Pity? He waited a moment certain it would pass.
Ark sucked in a deep breath and glared at his son. “You have to promise me one thing.”
Tarragon tilted his head, his ear hole opened wide. “What?”
“You’ll find a suitable replacement. Someone who will really care.” His eyes narrowed. “Not you, of course.”
Exhilaration swept over Tarragon. He turned his back on his father and slapped the scanner off. “Let’s go. You need your rest, and I have to attend to other duties.”
With his son’s support, Ark heaved to his feet and hobbled to the door. “I’ll lie down in my room. You can meet me for dinner—if you like.”
Tarragon nodded. “Certainly. And you can tell me all about your travels.”
“You want to hear—”
Tarragon dropped the scalpel under a sterilizing ray. “As you said, we hardly ever talk. And we don’t have much time.”
Once he reached his home, Ark leaned against the door and sighed. “This is my end.”
Without much difficulty, Tarragon maintained his sober disposition and nodded. But my beginning.
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.
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
Cerulean stared up at the lofty two-storied cabin with large gabled windows and wide surrounding porch and grinned. It was everything he had dreamed of and more. Turning his head, his gaze swept over the lofty panorama, skimming across the waters of the great lake. Huge, white geese flew high above the bubbling crests that rolled up on the shore on this fine, summer evening.
He was exhausted, but he was getting used to that sensation. Ever since he won his last great tussle with the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, he had promised himself a retreat and a rest to build up his depleted reserves. He had been fighting Luxonians, humans—and pretty much everyone else—for far too long.
Even as his shoulders relaxed, shuffled footsteps forced him to turn his gaze from the blue-green water, across the pine-strewn forests, and back to the front of his cabin. There, on the dirt trail, a small assembly of men and women came to a huddled stop. His whole body stiffened and he frowned. Who the—?
The eldest figure spoke first. “Excuse us, sir. We hate to bother you, but are you Cerulean, the Luxonian leader of the Inter-Alien—?”
Cerulean sighed, his shoulders drooping. Oh, God. He peered into their tanned faces, appraised their homespun clothing and work-roughened hands, and repented his impatience. Give me strength. “I’m not the leader of anything anymore. I’ve retired.”
A tall, extremely thin representative of the group stepped forward. He strangled a straw hat in his hands and shuffled his feet. “But you are that Luxonian?”
Cerulean shrugged. “I helped patch together the Inter-Alien Alliance on Newearth, yes.” His gaze roved over the group as a baby, hidden from sight, squalled. “Is there something I can do for you?”
The tall man took another hesitant step forward, his brown-eyed gaze looking up the slope and into Cerulean’s piercing eyes. “My name is Able, and you see, we’re settlers here, neighbors, kind of. We call ourselves the Amens. Separatists. We want to return to the ways of our ancestors and live in union with God’s created world.”
A wavering grin played on Cerulean’s lips. “The Bhuac would love you.”
Able’s face brightened as a smile broke the straight line of his mouth. “Yes, sir, we know of them, and they do support our dream, but they have their own struggles. They’ve been persecuted too.”
“Someone’s persecuting you?” Cerulean pursed his lips. “Listen, this is no way to get acquainted. Please, step up here. The porch is large enough, and I have a few chairs. I’ve even got some food inside if you like.”
The two women offered sidelong glances and grinned as the elder one shifted her baby from under a blanket onto her hip. The other men started forward. Able put up his hand. “We wouldn’t think of disturbing you, but it would be a kindness to speak in the shade. The sun is hot, though the breeze you have up here is a real blessing.”
Cerulean opened his hands in a welcoming gesture, and the group filed past and climbed the four wooden steps. In quick jerking motions, he dragged chairs forward. “I just moved in, and I haven’t gotten everything set up yet.”
Able waved his hand anxiously. “Please, we only want a few moments of your time to explain our mission and why we need your help—if you don’t mind.”
Cerulean leaned against a post, suppressed a sigh, and nodded.
The three men moved into the background, while the two women settled into the available chairs. The mother rocked her baby with a relieved smile.
Able continued to wring his hat as he focused his attention on Cerulean. “You see, we were granted immigration status four years back, but it took time to organize our people and buy the right plot of land. We don’t want to trouble anybody, and we have no prejudice against any race, but we do have rules we must abide by. We choose to live simply and in union with nature. That’s why we moved into this wilderness over a year ago. At first, everything went along as planned. We built homes for our members and worked the land so that we could plant, and we even made a few contacts with businesses in Waukee.”
Cerulean saluted Able with an appreciative nod. “Sounds like you’re a marvel of planning and industry.”
Able accepted the compliment with a shy smile before his face sobered. “Well, we aren’t afraid of hard work, but we are afraid of death threats.”
“About six months ago, a mob of Uanyi showed up and told us to move on, that we’re not welcome in this district. I told them that we had the authorization of the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee to buy land here and that we have full human rights to form our own society as we see fit. I even showed them our data chip authorizing—”
“They ignored it, didn’t they? Uanyi don’t much care for humans. They’ll continue trying to intimidate you if they think they can get away with it.”
“They did a whole lot more than intimidate. They beat three of our men senseless and threatened to come back and kill our women and children if we didn’t leave.”
Cerulean’s frown deepened as he pushed off from the post. “Did you inform the Human Rights Bureau? Get any Interventionists out here?”
Able sighed. “A couple of Interventionists flew in and took down our complaint. But they told us that since we didn’t have any hard evidence, it’s going to be difficult to follow up. I went all the way to Vandi and issued a formal complaint, but the Human Rights detective I met said that threats against humans were too numerous to deal with. Humans are the minority and what with the Cresta, Uanyi, Ingot, and Luxonians—pardon me, sir, but not all Luxonians are like you—we find that we have very few rights and even fewer friends. At least not anyone who can help to defend us against a band of unruly Uanyi.”
Cerulean sat on the top step and rubbed his hands over his face. He let his gaze absorb the vast beauty before him and took a deep breath. Craning his neck, he looked back at the assembly.
Able blinked and glanced away. “You can’t help us?”
Cerulean rose and strode to the woman and the now sleeping infant. He smiled at the bright pink face nestled against his mother’s enfolding body. With a gentle finger, he caressed the tousled, straw-colored hair and peered into the mother’s eyes. “I’ll do everything I can. I have friends. Just give me a few days to track down these Uanyi idiots, and I might be able to convince them that it’ll be in their best interests to leave you alone.”
Relieved smiles broke across every face. The mother’s eyes filled with tears as she reached out and gripped Cerulean’s hand, her voice a shy whisper. “Thank you.”
Cerulean nodded. “Well, I don’t know about you, but solving problems makes me hungry. How about you come in and I’ll scratch up…something?”
A burst of laughter followed this as the two women shuffled to their feet. Able gripped Cerulean’s shoulder. “On the contrary, you’ll be our guest tonight, if you’ll do us the honor. My wife is one of the best cooks on the planet, and her sister can brew the finest tea this side of the moon.”
Cerulean grinned at Able’s soft, delighted eyes. “I can hardly wait to meet them.”
Perching his rumpled hat jauntily on his head, Able grinned back. “You already have.” The small troop shuffled down the steps with Able guiding the woman and baby. He looked back at Cerulean as he stopped on the trail, the rest of the group traipsing down the incline. “I’ll come back at sunset and lead you over. We’ll gather everyone to celebrate.”
Cerulean sighed. “I hope you aren’t counting on me too much. I’ll do the best I can, but you know, trouble is part of life here on Newearth.”
Able bobbed his head in agreement and turned away with a wave. “True, but we’ve got the best reason in the universe to be glad. It isn’t every day that you meet a new friend.”
Cerulean’s gaze followed the small group as they traipsed away.
An odd sensation made him look down. His legs were shaking. In fact, his whole body shook. Collapsing on the bottom step, he held his head in his hands and groaned.
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Slowly, deliberately, a light scalpel moved over cold flesh. “Tell me, do you fear death?” Mitholie, a brilliant Cresta renowned throughout the interplanetary scientific community, fixed his companion with a hard gaze as they stood in the bright-lit Crestar laboratory.
Taug, an up-and-coming apprentice, let a tentacle drift through the warm salt water of his bio-suit. His large, golden, watery eyes gazed coolly at the specimen lying suspended in the examination tube. “No. Why should I fear a void?” His eyes slowly rose to meet the elder’s scrutiny.
“Well—” Sensitive tentacles curled about the delicate equipment as Mitholie’s green eyes returned to the subject of their examination. “—your sociological profile says you…dislike death.” The light scalpel cut deeper, revealing bone. Mitholie’s mouth orifice lit up in a pleased smile.
Taug moved his bio-suit slightly nearer, bending over the examination tube. His eyes, lit by the dim, icy-blue lighting, flickered over the specimen. “I don’t fear death. I see it as a waste.”
“Yes. I calculate waste on how hard it is to retrieve lost data.” Taug sucked in water letting it drift slowly over his gills. “A brain sack once destroyed is gone, forever beyond our reach.”
Mitholie scanned each of the specimen’s organs carefully, individually. “But what if I no longer need that mind?”
“It’s hard to tell when and how something might be useful, or even worse, necessary.”
“You have an…intriguing mind.” Mitholie turned a lump of flesh in his tentacles.
Taug watched intently. “Beyond that, there is a practical reality. I’m neither a trained soldier nor an assassin.” He gestured with waving tentacles, “Like you, science is my passion.”
“Your father’s pet project has been identified—alive.” Mitholie’s eyes remained fixed on his work, ignoring Taug.
Taug slowly exhaled water. “I would say that was impossible, but I know the High Tribunal must be certain or else you wouldn’t have told me.” His mouth orifice remained in a fixed smile. “Is this a favor? Am I being offered a chance to commit suicide before the messy business of torture, trial, and execution?”
Mitholie spasmed, his long body wiggling with glee, “No such dramatics, no.” His tentacles released the delicate equipment; he looked Taug in the eye. “The High Tribunal simply wishes you to…purge your father’s unfortunate experiment. That done, I’m sure this messy business can be consigned to the dark waters.”
With a flick of a tentacle to his bio-suit, Mitholie effected a transaction. “I’m transferring the data now. By the way, hiring another Cresta to kill it is…unadvised. The High Tribunal wishes the waves of the ‘humons’ to be kept tranquil, at least for now. Besides, you have contacts? Yes?”
Taug’s eyes moved swiftly, scanning the long streams of data crossing before his eyes. “Yes….”
Mitholie laid down his knife and stepped back. “Very good. I’ll go with you to the harbor dock.”
Taug stepped aside. “Thank you.”
Together they moved down the sterile, rounded, white hallway, deep in secretive conversation. Plugging their bio-suits into the wall jacks, they shed them, and came out on the other side of the wall free, gliding through the dark water.
The human specimen floated in the examination tube, alone.
Floating in deep space, Bothmal Penal Internment was left deliberately unmarked on any space charts. Its layout was confusing and disorienting; carved from an asteroid, it stood as a grim reminder of what could happen to one if you angered enough powerful beings. Many sentient races held a similar vision of hell, and those imprisoned at Bothmal all agreed that if it wasn’t hell—it was right next door.
Zenith stood beside the docking bay port, scanning a list of names being streamed to him. Long ago, he had been fully human, but the allure of immortality had led him to enhance most of his body with synthetic replacements, including his eyes. He would celebrate his four-hundredth birthday this year, if he continued the practice. A heavy trans-platinum chest guard protected his vital organs. Over this, he wore a synth-weave robe with a hefty handgun resting on his hip.
As the Chief Warden of Bothmal, Zenith knew the tangled structure like the back of his bio-metal hand and had several backup maps downloaded to his brain, just in case.
An interstellar ship, several times larger than the skyscrapers of Oldearth, docked nearby with its boarding tube neatly extended. Only one passenger exited the ship.
Taug moved slowly down the platform, flexing his tentacles in his new bio-suit. Biomechanical three-toed feet moved him smoothly over the floor, keeping his center of gravity low.
“Ah…Taug.” Zenith deftly pronounced the name that popped up in his holo-vision. “Pleased to meet you.” He inclined his head, motioning with his arm. “This way, if you please.”
Taug mimicked the bow and moved silently after his host.
“I hope you’ll forgive us for giving you this guided tour rather than allowing you to down-stream your own maps.” Zenith turned slightly. “Security, you know.”
Taug spoke, his voice synthesized. “I do.”
“You’re here on business?”
Taug’s brow furrowed.
Zenith’s grin turned malicious, “You’re not here to visit a relative…?”
“Certainly not! As you say, it’s business. I simply need to see if someone is still…available.”
The burly, six-foot human guard was not happy to see the large, soft-bodied Cresta in a gleaming black mechanical exoskeleton lumber toward him. His squint-eyed frown kept pleasantries to a minimum.
Taug strode forward. His tentacles arched stiffly at his side as he assumed the air of a harassed official, which was not off the mark. The journey to Bothmal had been long and exhausting. He hated the tough, unrelenting metallic form that allowed him to move and breathe on land, but he had little choice. Terrestrials dominated the universe. He felt out of sorts and hungry, but this part of his plan could not be delayed.
“I have an appointment.” Taug pinched a computer chip with his tentacle and dropped it on to the guard’s palm.
The guard inserted it into his datapad. Scowling, he jerked his head toward the back room. “Oh, it’s you. I was wondering who in darkness would want it. After all these years, it’s probably not any good. I’d start fresh if I were you.”
Taug shook his head, the water in his breathing helm swishing with each motion. Water dripped down the side of his face. “Good thing you’re not me.”
The guard sneered his reply.
The two shuffled through the doorway into a back room where Justine lay immobile on a steel table, the same table where she had been turned off. Taug stared at the figure and appraised its strength, noting its perfect symmetry and conjecturing on its intelligence. He turned to the guard.
The guard hesitated. “Like I said, it’s probably no good, but if you want to waste your time—”
The guard punched some numbers into his datapad and swiped it with two fingers.
The guard jumped back but threw out his hand protectively in front of Taug. “You never can tell how these things’ll react. She could go bloody ballistic, if you know what I mean.”
“Now, please.” Taug cleared his throat.
Taug stood motionless. His eyes narrowed as he studied Justine’s response.
She opened her eyes, turned her head, and stared first at Taug and then at the guard.
Taug nodded. “She is awake. Everything looks fine. You may leave us.”
The guard shook his head. “You sure? She could sit up and throttle you as soon as I walk out the door.”
“Will you throttle me, Justine?”
Justine sat up, her gaze fixed on Taug. “Should I?”
The guard stifled a laugh.
Taug ignored the guard and returned Justine’s intense stare.
“Then I won’t.”
Taug’s gaze shifted back to the guard. “Thank you. You may leave.”
With a shrug, the guard shuffled to toward the doorway. “Okay, it’s your neck. If I hear a scream…or something…I’ll—”
Justine flicked her gaze to the guard. “You wouldn’t have time.”
The guard stalked out the door.
Taug stepped back, allowing Justine room to shift herself off the bed.
She stood and appeared to be appraising her internal workings.
“Are you all right?”
“It appears so.”
Taug meandered toward a conference table and a pair of comfortable chairs. “Please, let’s sit. You can hardly imagine what I’ve been through to get here. Interminable bureaucrats…but, never mind.” Taug lowered his stiff body onto a chair and sighed. He sniffed into the breathing helm and allowed the briny liquid to play over his face.
Justine strode over and stood by him. “I’d rather pace if you don’t mind. I’ve been lying around for…how long?”
“Approximately seventy years, give or take, depending on whose calendar you use these days. Since we’ll be settling on Newearth, you might as well get used to their systems of measurement.”
“Why? I mean, why have you…?”
“Turned you back on?”
“I would have said awakened.”
“Yes, I suspected as much. You seem to consider yourself…human. I hope that won’t be a problem.”
Justine did not break her stride. “You haven’t answered my question.”
“I awakened you because I need you.”
Justine paced across the cylindrical room.
Taug’s eyes followed her. “What do you know about Crestar?”
Justine stopped and peered inward. She refocused her gaze on Taug. “Apparently, my databank remains intact. No memory wipe of any kind?”
Taug shrugged. “A very persuasive advocate advised against it. A Luxonian, I believe.”
With a stiff nod, Justine clasped her hands behind her back and resumed a professional mode. “Crestar, home of over twenty-seven billion life forms. A water planet ruled by a coalition of seven leading scientists called the Ingal. Notorious for unprecedented experimentation on other beings—”
Two tentacles admonished Justine into silence. “Stop. You’ve been brainwashed by those on the Inter-Alien Alliance—”
Justine leaned forward, her eyes flashing. “No!” She glared down at Taug. “I am incapable of being brainwashed. Especially not by the very beings that nearly destroyed me.”
Taug nodded. “Good to know. Please….” He nodded toward the chair. “Sit.”
Justine perched on the edge of the available chair, her back straight and uncompromising.
Taug sighed. “You must understand my position. I am a Cresta caught between worlds. I believe in my culture, but at the same time, I fear we are heading to our doom.”
Justine pursed her lips. She folded her hands in her lap, her gaze fixed on Taug.
“I have a plan to assist my race, but I need your help to see it through. During your long sleep, a new force has arisen in the universe. It is called by the remarkably unimaginative name ‘Newearth.’ Do you happen to know anything about Oldearth?”
Justine’s gaze hardened. “I am partly composed of human DNA.”
“That was not my question.”
“I know everything about their history and downfall up until I was shut down.”
Taug nodded and struggled out of his chair. “That would be year twenty-three of what the human remnant calls their ‘Hidden Years.’” He padded to a wall screen and pushed a button. A light flared and the screen illuminated the starry universe.
“They stayed on Lux for forty years, resettled Newearth, and lived in relative obscurity until our leadership recognized an opportunity.” Taug tapped a keypad and the image zoomed through space until it focused on Newearth spinning in all its blue-green glory. “We invaded successfully until the Luxonians took the humans’ part and negotiated a peace treaty called the Inter-Alien Alliance.” He tapped again and the image refocused on a human city. Low lying buildings dotted the landscape, and humans bustled about in self-made importance.
Justine stared at the screen in unblinking fascination.
Taug looked from Justine to the image. “I’ve been ordered to serve in a city called Vandi and accomplish a, shall we say, delicate task. It is hoped that I will learn ways to secure a stronger position for my government in the alliance.”
Justine’s gaze slid to Taug’s face. Her lips stiffened. “I am not for hire.”
Taug shrugged. He flicked off the image, breaking the trance. “I didn’t say you were. I simply have plans for myself…and Newearth.”
“They can’t be shared at this early stage. I just need someone with your abilities at my disposal.”
“I may be forced to kill someone, a mixed-breed accident, but I’m not particularly suited to committing acts of murder. Especially since no one can discover an association between me and the—”
“Yes, I guess you could say that. Though he does have a name.” Taug folded his tentacles together in a meditative motion. “You see, he does not appear to be a threat at the moment, but he could become one. I need to consider the situation carefully. In the meantime, I must be ready to act—if necessary.”
“What’s its name?”
“He is not an it, though I suppose… Still, I object. His name is Derik Erland, and you are to treat him with respect. He is part human, part Cresta.”
“So, I’m an assassin—again?”
“If need be.”
Justine tapped her thigh as she circled the room. “Why not make it easy on yourself? Give me a description and its location, and I’ll take care of it. After all, you just gave me back my life. I ought to do a little…something.”
Taug chuckled. “You’ll have me convinced that you are sentient before long. No, I can’t simply kill Derik. After all, he may be worth more alive. My father, Taurgon, created him. He believed, quite naively, that once races begin interbreeding, then divisions melt away. I’m not such a fool.”
“So? What’s the mixed-breed worth to you?”
“He might be the answer to every Cresta’s deepest aspiration—immortality and nearly infinite power. Once we are able to successfully graft our intellect onto other beings, we can simply regenerate ourselves as often as need be.”
“There are creatures that do something similar. I believe they are called parasites.”
“Ah, but there would be a difference. We would not simply live off our host; we would become more…a greater being in our own right. We might even rival the creator in time.”
Taug raised a tentacle. “I’ve already said too much.” He rose stiffly to his feet. “I have awakened you for one purpose: to be of service to me. At some point, the High Council might have decided that they needed your bed, and then where would you be? Recycled perhaps? That would be a shame. You have a lot of history tucked into that synthetic brain of yours. You might become much more than an assassin. Again, I’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, come with me.”
Taug led the way toward the door where the guard snorted with irritation.
Justine took one final glance at the abandoned, steel bed and marched after Taug. “Where are we going?”
“Newearth. It’s my home for now. You may call it what you wish.”
“Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.” ~Lao Tzu
“We have definite…” The Luxonian Supreme Judge in a trim human form and dressed in a dark blue robe, stirred in her seat, “…proof that you assassinated well over a hundred and fifty beings on the troop transport called…” She glanced down at a datapad, “…the Generous Sharon.” She fixed her black-eyed gaze on the lone figure standing on the floating dock with narrowed eyes.
Well over fifty delegates had gathered at Bothmal Criminal Court and sat on comfortable chairs, each tailored for a particular species. Every sentient race on the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, including Ingots, Uanyi, Crestas, Luxonians, Bhuacs, and humans had at least one representative in attendance. No race wanted to be absent from this trial. Hundreds more sat in the court’s upper wings, savoring the spectacle while millions watched the unfolding drama on holoscreens.
The figure standing silently at the center of this hurricane of watchful emotion was a biomechanical hybrid, an android built in female form, in this case, human. Long black hair fell like a cascading waterfall down her back; her blue eyes stared straight ahead, peering into shadows. Massive cuffs, secured with powerful magnets and chains, were locked tightly about her wrists and ankles.
The android moved slightly, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. An expectant hush settled over the assembly. The silvery rattle and clanking of chains broke the quiet.
“Well?” The Supreme Judge leaned forward in her chair, fixing the prisoner with narrowed eyes and lowered brows.
“Yes.” The word was a sigh, not of regret, but of weariness or boredom. “Yes, I killed them.” She glanced up at the massive holoscreen hovering over the assembly. On its curved surface the security recordings from the Generous Sharon played on a constant loop. “My guilt is…pretty obvious. There’s no point denying it.” A small smile curved at the corners of her lips.
Cerulean shifted to the edge of his seat and coughed lightly into his hand. “If I may ask, why?”
Pondering a moment, the android straightened. “They were in my way.” Her musical, almost bell-like voice would have been lost in the echoing chamber if not for the amplifiers.
“Justine, correct?” Cerulean folded his hands into his long robes, leaning forward.
“That is my name.”
“It was necessary, you say. Did you feel no…revulsion? Pity? Empathy? How could it be necessary to end the lives of over a hundred beings?”
Justine placed her shackled hands on the dock’s rails. “You work in this hall. Did you ask the building permission to occupy it? What its feelings were?”
Two delegates, a Cresta and a human, spoke at once.
“So, you compare yourself to an inanimate object?”
“Are you suggesting that you, as an android, cannot be sentient?” The human representative’s fingers nervously played with a datapad.
Cerulean raised his hand. “Justine, I’ve read the reports, your psychological profile.” He cocked his head. “You’ve made jokes, noted ironies—shown a full range of emotions. Are you suggesting that, like an inanimate object, you can’t feel or rather, that you had no choice?”
Justine looked at the human, turning slightly. “The Inter-Alien Commission declared that it is impossible for a robot to be sentient. That is your belief. I say nothing about my own.” She fastened her cold, blue eyes on the Cresta. “I am the product of fetal tissue and a computer. How much choice do I have?” Her lips curved mockingly.
“Well, we know she appreciates sarcasm.” The Cresta’s dry wit drew a chuckle from the crowd.
The Supreme Judge rapped her gavel on the metallic podium. “Order! Order!”
Silence fell as the Cresta representative raised his voice to speak once more. “What are we doing here?” The silence continued as the Cresta chair detached from its mooring and floated before the assembly. “Does no one here appreciate the irony that we are, in fact, holding a trial for a gun?” The chair slowly revolved as the Cresta looked at each of the delegates in turn. “Thousands of machines, robots, and androids were used on both sides of the late Oskilth Civil War. This particular gun,” The Cresta gestured with a free tentacle, “just happened to kill its targets more effectively than most.”
The android remained still, her mouth drawn in a hard line.
“No, the real reason we’re here is because the ringleaders of the war escaped, and now, like hatchlings, you stage an elaborate show, desperate to vent your frustrations on something.” The Cresta floated back, locking his chair in place, his tentacles wiggling smugly.
The courtroom erupted into roars; many in the assembly leaped to their feet.
“Bold words, coming from you who never suffered an invasion!” The Bhuac representative shimmered as he struggled to maintain his human form.
The Cresta snorted water through his breathing helm dismissively. “To be frank, I don’t care what you do with it. Let’s wipe its memories and be done with it.”
“Memories make us who we are! Wiping her memories is a death sentence.” Cerulean’s voice reflected stern determination in contrast to the discord all around.
“Order! Order!” The hard smack of the gavel echoed over the uproar. “Any further disturbance and this courtroom will be cleared!” The noise subsided as the judge’s sharp gaze scoured the room. “The fate of the accused will be decided by the jury at the proper time.”
“If I may speak before they adjourn?” Cerulean rose to his feet.
The Supreme Judge nodded.
“Thank you.” Cerulean’s chair floated before the assembly. He paused a moment. “Fellow beings, I have studied many different sentient races, my own included.” He looked down at the android, who continued to stare off into space.
“I believe that this being calling herself Justine Santana is both sentient and aware, although,” he raised his hand as the human delegate jumped to her feet, “I’m also aware that this is only my opinion. I believe that she was not fully responsible for her actions. My argument against the death sentence, or memory wipe, is not based on opinion, however.” His back straight, he gazed into the throng, his hands gripping the guard- rail. “Once destroyed, her memories are gone—forever beyond our reach.”
The Cresta representative’s tentacles gently caressed his bio-suit, his eyes fixed intently on the Luxonian, his tendrils wiggling thoughtfully.
“Who knows when, or how, the data stored in her brain could benefit one of us.” Bowing, Cerulean returned his chair to its original location.
No one in the massive courtroom noticed the subtle flicker in Justine’s eyes as she appraised the Luxonian before he sat down, storing his features in her data files.
Many of the delegates muttered and whispered, while expressions of indecision crossed their faces.
“If no one else has anything to say….” The Supreme Judge’s head swiveled, appraising the vast crowd. “No one? Very well—” she pointed to the assembly of six beings representing each race sitting at her left, “the jury may now adjourn.”
Justine sat alone in a Bothmal holding cell, lit only by a dim, red light. Her chains had not been removed, but they did not hinder her as she dabbed paint, faster than the eye could follow, on a bare, whiteboard.
With a hissing squeak a small, thickly barred window opened in the fat cell door.
“You.” Her hand continued to flicker over the whiteboard. She remained focused on her work.
“Yes, me.” The Luxonian tilted his head, peering down through the bars. “You draw?” He nodded at the rapidly filling canvas.
“Paint.” She tilted her head, lips pursed. “It helps pass the time. A cheap means to keep the prisoner quiet. You have the advantage. You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”
“Thank you, Cerulean.”
“You’re thanking me for…?”
“I may be an unrepentant murderer, but I still appreciate those who aid me.” Her brush paused mid-stroke. “Your speech out there is the only reason they’re having any discussion about my fate at all.” Her brush continued to dance across the board.
“I read the full reports.”
“I was probably the only one to do so.”
Justine’s sigh was barely audible. “This trial was pure politics.”
Cerulean wrapped his fingers around the bars, tilting his head to view as much of Justine’s face as possible. “Your objective was to disable the troop carrier?”
She shrugged. “Yes.”
Cerulean’s voice rose slightly. “I’ve seen the carrier’s blueprints. Deck forty-two A and rooms thirty-two C and B were nowhere near the command room. I saw where you breached the ship. You doubled back and deliberately searched those rooms. Why?”
Justine smiled coldly, her hand moving a bit faster, the tip of the brush a blur. “Maybe I just like to kill.”
Cerulean pursed his lips. “Then why were troopers Alex and Jerrod left alive?”
Her mouth drew into a tight line. “Maybe I missed them. Maybe I thought they were already dead.”
“I read your specs. Enhanced senses, hearing, sight… You can hear a heartbeat from a hundred meters away.”
The brush moved faster.
“Trooper Jerrod thought it was a miracle that the escape pod managed to fire on autopilot.”
Justine’s mouth twisted into a mocking smile. “So, what’s your explanation?”
“You resent humans, hate them, and by extension their allies. You saw it as payback, didn’t you, as justice? But when you saw trooper Jerrod trying to stanch his comrade’s wound, even as he was bleeding out himself, you couldn’t bring yourself to press the trigger. Even though it went against orders, you lowered your gun.”
“A charming story. But why wasn’t that…story used to play to the court’s sympathy?” The brush tip filled in tiny details.
“Unlike the Cresta, I don’t see a gun. I don’t see a cold, calculating machine.” His voice softened. “I see a very scared woman who desperately wants to seem strong in her final moments.”
The brush froze. Justine’s head lowered, and for a second, the proud shoulders sagged. The moment passed as her head lifted again, a confident smile playing on her face. “Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She carefully laid the brush aside. “It’s finished. What do you think?” She displayed the panting in the crook of her arm.
His eyes widening, Cerulean stared into a portrait of himself, true to life on even the tiniest of hair ends. “It’s…beautifully done.”
“Thank you. Keep it.” She set the painting aside before making eye contact with Cerulean for the first time.
Cerulean swallowed a lump in his throat. “I don’t know what to say. I’m honored.”
“You can hang it on your wall or throw it in the trash. Whichever you prefer.” Justine rose. “Anything else?”
Cerulean stood thoughtfully before he shook his head. “No.”
Cerulean turned to go. He closed his eyes as a sudden wave of dizziness swept over him. Squaring his shoulders, he forced open his eyes and marched down the long, dim hall.
Justine called after him. “You know, if I had killed them and blown up the ship, there wouldn’t have been anything to identify me. I wouldn’t be here right now.” Justine’s voice echoed down the tunnel, her face and hands pressed against the bars. “No good deed goes unpunished, right?”
Cerulean stopped in midstride and looked back. “Everything we do has consequences. Alex and Jerrod are still alive.”
“I hope you find happiness.” Justine’s fingers rubbed against the bars as the window slowly moved.
The window shut with a clang. Cerulean stood in the dim, red light, his hands clasped, his head bowed.
“This jury has found you guilty.” The Supreme Judge craned her neck.
Justine stood alone on the floating dock, her wrists and ankles bound with chains.
“Do you have anything to say?”
A mocking grin formed at the corners of Justine’s lips. “I regret nothing.”
“Very well.” The Supreme Judge frowned. “I will read your sentence. You are to be turned off, and your body will be locked in Bothmal Penal Internment forever or until such time as the information encrypted into your brain is deemed useful. Do you understand?”
Two security drones placed heavy hands on Justine’s shoulders and led her from the room.
One by one, the delegates filed out and the vast wings emptied. The courtroom grew dark as millions of holoscreens switched to yet another stream. Within a few days, the delegates and judge would relegate these memories to deep storage or utter forgetfulness.
Cerulean stood at the head of a large, metal table. He was the only one in the small, red-lit room that wasn’t a prisoner, guard, or a technician.
“You came.” Justine lay flat on the table. Large metal bands secured her legs, arms, and neck. She twisted her head slightly, smiling crookedly at Cerulean. “To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub…all my sins remembered.”
“A point well made. ‘To be or not to be….’”
Cerulean patted the helpless hand. “It’ll be…all right.”
A frown puckered Justine’s brow. “Being turned off isn’t like going to sleep, you know.” She turned away. “When a human sleeps, their mind is turning, working, dreaming. When a robot is turned off, its mind is completely inert. Dead.” She gazed fixedly ahead, her mouth set in a grim line.
Cerulean sucked in a breath. “But this way, there’s at least a chance…for you to…come back.”
A technician cleared his throat. “It’s time. Sorry.”
Justine’s fingers gripped the air, her hand opening and closing, her jaws clenched. Her voice became a whisper. “I’m… scared….”
Cerulean placed his hands on hers.
The technician swiped a bar on his datapad.
Cerulean watched Justine’s eyes widen and freeze, her mechanical body jerking against the restraints like a living thing. Her hand fell limp and no longer gripped his. His jaw clenched as he swallowed hard. “Goodbye, Justine.”
“Sir?” The technician looked up from his datapad, a puzzled frown on his face.
The table slid into a receiving hole in the wall.
“Nothing.” Cerulean turned away.
“It wasn’t human. Sir…?”
The door clanged behind Cerulean.
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” ~Lao Tzu
Bhuac: A gelatinous race with no set form from the planet Helm. They can mold themselves into the likeness of a variety of races.
Cresta: A techno-organic race from the planet Crestar with long, soft bodies, tentacles, and large, watery eyes. They speak in a synthesized voice, and their large brain sack lays hidden behind a spiral shell. They wear breathing helms when not on their own water-based planet.
Ingot: A cyborg race from planet Ingilium that wears bulky techno-organic armor and breather helms built directly into their bodies.
Luxonian: Light beings from the planet Lux. Luxonians send out Guardians on a regular basis to observe alien cultures in order to protect their interests in the region.
Uanyi: Small, slim creatures from the planet Sectine, stand- ing about four to five feet tall, insect-like, with soft, rubbery exoskeletons, enormous eyes, and wear a breathing mask that covers their crab-like mandibles.
Cerulean, a Luxonian light being, prayed to an unknown God amid the swirling masses. The tips of his fingers touched steeple style as he appeared in his favorite form: a muscular, middle-aged man with soulful, blue eyes and a determined chin. He sat on a dais facing a massive assembly and squared his shoulders. The crowded, domed hall decorated with statues of long-dead but never-to-be-forgotten members of the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee resonated with numerous murmuring conversations. As his gaze flowed over the squirming court of very-much-alive representatives of six races, Cerulean’s mind slipped back to the love of his life, Anne Smith, who he had buried under a blooming apple tree on OldEarth twenty-three years before.
He closed his eyes to the memory. After a deep breath, he reopened them to face the trial of another woman of interest: Justine Santana, an android and one of the most notorious weapons ever used during the Intergalactic Oskilth War.
After a despairing human remnant abandoned Earth and fled to Lux, Cerulean crafted a resettlement plan for Newearth, but war intervened. Now, after the last war crimes trial, he would finally be free to help humanity resettle on Newearth.
But this trial must come first. After all, Justine was human too…“