An Honest Fool
Taug had used not a smidgen of hyperbole when he described Mitholie’s suite. It was the finest set of rooms available on Crestar. A full wall tank undulated with colored lights at one end while creeping vines and swaying foliage draped every centimeter of surface area not designated for sitting, walking, or working. Lab equipment held their proper station against one wall, spilling into a neighboring wing, while an ample food station and accompanying attendant waited for orders against another wall. Comfortable chairs, a widescreen, and plenty of room for guests completed the luxurious setting.
Taug stood with his tentacles clasped in an attitude of contemplation, his gaze lowered until Mitholie should deem to speak.
Mitholie deemed. “The android’s not quite what I was expecting, but she’ll do.” He strolled to the food station, motioned, and waited while the attendant splashed a dark liquid into a tall glass and handed it over with a proud bow. Mitholie swirled it playfully. There was not a hint of an offer. “With her technology, I’ll live forever.”
Taug peered up but remained expressionless.
Mitholie tossed a glance at Taug. “I suppose you know how to turn the damn thing off?”
Taug swallowed. “It is not easily done.”
“I could blast a hole through its middle or its synthetic brain. Would that help?”
Taug lifted one tentacle beseechingly. “If you damage her—”
Mitholie inhaled a long slurp and grinned over the glass. “I have a backup. Governor Right sent a message. Apparently, there’s another one, and it’s coming here. To affect a rescue, no doubt.”
The yellowish tinge drained from Taug’s features. “Alone?”
“Who knows? Who cares?” Mitholie surveyed Taug’s swaying tentacles. “You’re not frightened of an android? They’re just tools, like any other.”
“Even tools can be dangerous. Especially when they have a will of their own.”
Mitholie chuckled. “So you are completely useless to me, eh? You didn’t take care of the little matter of the crossbreed, and you can’t manage an android. Your father‘s reckless experiment is free, tromping around Newearth like an angry ox. You know, he yelled at me? Actually threatened me.” Mitholie’s face darkened perceptibly.
Taug closed his eyes. “He’s one of our own. At least partially. I could’ve learned a great deal from him.”
“Dark waters!” Mitholie slammed his drink on the counter. “We don’t need him. Androids are stronger and more durable. If the creators could make one, there’s no reason why we can’t. As long as they don’t find out.”
Taug exhaled. “What do you want from me?”
A slow grin played across Mitholie’s face. “Nothing.”
Taug’s eyes widened in alarm.
The door at the far end of the room slid open.
Justine sauntered in, an appraising gaze roving over the two Crestas. “You look like you need to say your prayers, Taug. How does it feel to be expendable? Derik never liked it either…maybe you’re more like him than you realized.”
Taug’s gaze shifted to Mitholie.
Directing the attendant to leave, Mitholie refilled his glass and sauntered to his desk. “I have been informed that a friend of yours is rushing here to see you, Justine. Does the name Max Wheeler mean anything?”
Justine froze. Her gaze shifted from Mitholie to Taug. Her eyes narrowed. “I almost felt sorry for you. Almost.”
Mitholie reached behind the counter and withdrew a Dustbuster. “Don’t bother.” He tossed the weapon to Justine.
Justine caught it and sneered at Mitholie. “You think I need a weapon?”
The corners of Mitholie’s wide lips rose in a flabby grin.
Taug lifted a tentacle. “Before you act on impulse, know this, Justine. I never wanted to hurt Derik. I only wanted to study him. As for this Max Wheeler, I’ve never heard of him.”
Justine circled Taug like a predator eyeing her next meal. “And me? What was I?”
Mitholie wagged a tentacle at Justine. “A useful tool! Now get on with it. I’m not Taug; I don’t like to prolong the inevitable.”
Justine laughed, her eyes sparkling with ironic pleasure. “The inevitable? There is no inevitable.” She swiveled around faster than Mitholie could react, her fingers flying across his console. The widescreen flickered, and she grinned at a screen full of expectant Cresta faces.
“Your brain trust awaits your next move, Mitholie. I informed them that you had a surprise. As a scientist, you surely want every experiment made transparent so others can verify the results. Or perhaps you’d rather create a spectacle?”
Mitholie darted forward.
Grabbing Mitholie by the neck, she splayed his body against the screen. “You use beings for your own purpose. You say it is for the glory of science, for the good of Crestonians, but it all ends up as a matter of entertainment in the end. You don’t need to live longer, Mitholie, you need to live wiser.”
Mitholie’s tentacles flailed as the android lifted him off the ground. His eyes bulged to enormous size as he squeaked. “Kill her!”
Taug remained motionless. Excited murmuring filled the room as the assembly on the screen jabbered their options. Three Crestar guards burst through the door, their weapons ready. Their eyes shifted from Taug to Mitholie to Justine.
In a blur, Taug wrapped his tentacles around their legs and swiped them off their feet. He snatched their weapons out of their grasps.
Justine aimed the Dustbuster and blasted through Mitholie to the screen behind him. With unexpected agility, she tossed Taug over her shoulder and fled.
Derik slouched against the transport wall and tapped on his datapad. Max sat at the controls and fixed his attention on the dozen monitors arrayed at the front of the craft. Cerulean stood with his arms folded, across from Bala and Clare who sat crumpled in their bucket seats.
Clare groaned. “How long is this going to take? I’m not used to space travel, and I’m not even sure I can handle Crestar gravity. They do have gravity, don’t they?”
Bala huffed. “Really, Clare, don’t be so ignorant! They have an artificial environment that nearly matches ours. How did you ever make it through the academy?”
“I studied about Crestonian environment the night before and—”
Bala covered his ears. “Don’t tell me another word. To think I always held you in such high esteem.”
Clare’s gaze rolled over Derik. “What’re you doing?”
Derik shrugged. “Research. It helps to know the planet you’re invading.”
Bala nudged Clare. “Bet you wish you’d have thought of that.”
Clare shouldered Bala off his chair.
Heaving himself to his feet, Bala sauntered over to Derik. He stretched and tried to look over his shoulder. Suddenly, he shrieked. “Eek! What’s that?”
Cerulean turned sharply while Clare jumped to her feet.
Derik froze. His fingers paused above his datapad. “What?”
Clare inched up. “Is that a… SPIDER?” She raised her hand.
Cerulean jumped forward and grabbed her arm. “Don’t!”
Derik swiveled around and, with a graceful motion, slipped the spider off his shoulder and into his pocket.
Bala’s eyes bulged. “You keep a spider—as—a—pet?”
Clare spoke through clenched teeth. “Bringing unauthorized life forms to another planet is strictly forbidden! All insects die in exit sterilization anyway.”
“Shut up!” Max swiveled in his chair and faced them. “Justine’s in trouble!”
Derik pounded forward, slamming his leg against one of the monitors. “Oh… Ah!” he limped ahead. “What happened?”
“No poetry this time.” Max tapped the console.
Justine’s face appeared on an overhead screen. She huffed heavily and seemed to be carrying a sack over her shoulder. She looked up and frowned. “I’m dropping this off at Bothmal transport baggage department. Land there and pick it up. Then return to Newearth. Don’t look for me.” The screen blinked to black.
“Bothmal!” Max shook his head and tapped the console with alarming speed.
Clare staggered to the console. “What’re you doing?”
Max stared ahead as Crestar came into focus on the main viewer.
“Okay, everyone, this is where tiptoe practice in kindergarten really pays off.” Bala hunched his shoulders and followed Clare, who followed Cerulean, who followed Max. Derik took up the rear, his Dustbuster at the ready.
Clare glared over her shoulder.
Max whispered. “I see a guard. I think I know him.” Max straightened and motioned for the others to stay back. He sauntered forward and tapped his datapad. “Hello, Thurston. Captain Kimberling sent word that he’d be docking here, and I thought I’d be ready. Any news?”
Bala tapped Clare’s shoulder as they huddled closer to Cerulean and whispered. “He can lie? I thought that was against android code or—”
Cerulean squeezed Bala’s shoulder and glared.
Abashed, Bala swiped a finger over his lips and squeezed them tight.
The guard grinned. “Finally mastered contractions, eh, Max? Good for you.” He shrugged. “Nothing new here.” He scrolled through his datapad and frowned. “You must’ve got your info wrong. Kimberling isn’t due for another month. You mean some other captain?”
Max scrolled through his datapad with a grimace. “Huh? I don’t know how this happened. I got a message saying to pick up a package. I thought it was from Captain Kimberling. I just assumed—”
The guard smacked him conspiratorially on the arm. “Don’t worry about it. We all make mistakes.” He tapped his thigh. “But hey, there is a package here. I don’t know if it’s for you, just says—” He darted away and came back with a data-chip. “An honest fool?” He shrugged and handed it to Max. “I’m not sure if that’s the name of the package or the receiver. Everyone likes to be funny these days. Bothmal! If I had a unit for every idiot—”
Max peered over the guard’s shoulder. “Yes, that’s for me. Though the last time I came, it was anything but funny.” He sighed. “Mind if I take it?”
“Long as you sign for it. I’m not losing my job over a dumb joke.”
Max waved Cerulean and Derik forward. “I have assistants who are working on my transport.” His voice took on an authoritative tone. “Come on! Hurry it up. I haven’t got all day. Take the package.”
The guard beckoned with a wagging finger.
Cerulean, Clare, and Bala trudged after the guard with let’s- get-this-over-with expressions.
Clare nudged her partner. “What do you think’s in the package?”
Bala sighed. “As long as it isn’t Taug.”
Faye ambled along the corridor ceiling. It was never fun being an arachnid, but it was rather interesting. Everything looked different from the upside-down perspective. She scurried toward a crowd of excited Crestas doing their utmost to hold an enraged android at bay.
A cargo door was at Justine’s back, and her hand flew over the console. Her eyes glowed with triumph. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….” Her fingers hovered.
Faye slid down a drop line, morphed into a hulking Cresta, and spoke in a guttural voice from behind the crowd. “…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….”
Justine’s gaze fixed on the looming figure.
Faye passed through the crowd as if crossing the Divide and laid a tentacle on Justine’s shoulder. “I have the authority to take this prisoner to her just destination.”
A new voice made the entire crowd turn their heads once again. “But I’m afraid you don’t.” Cerulean marched forward and stared at Justine through forlorn eyes. He slid Faye’s Cresta tentacle off Justine’s shoulder and sighed. “As a representative of the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, I’m taking Justine Santana into custody, where she will await a trial at the convenience of the court.” He returned Faye’s bitter gaze. “Nice try, though.” Stepping forward, he led Justine by the arm.
Max, Derik, Clare, and Bala rushed forward in a straggling huddle. Seeing Cerulean and Justine, they bounded to a heaving halt.
Max grinned. “You found her!”
Derik heaved a sigh. “Thank God.”
Clare and Bala grinned.
Justine sighed. “You got the package?”
Derik’s chin rose and Max’s chest swelled as they nodded in unison.
Justine straightened her shoulders and offered her wrists, a prisoner ready for her manacles. “Well, here’s your fool.”
“Human nature will find itself only when it fully realizes that to be human it has to cease to be beastly or brutal.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
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