Justine turned the lock and stepped away from the door. Pressing the wall panel, the lights turned on all over the small bungalow. Theodora trotted up and swirled about her legs with a demanding meow. Justine nudged the cat to the side with a wet boot. “In a minute, cat.”
The feline nudged back and meowed louder.
“You better watch yourself. I’ve had an offer to introduce another of your kind into this abode. Will it be a rival…or replacement?” With a deep sigh, Justine dropped down onto a bench and tugged off her boots. Slush dripped on the hardwood floor. Without a backward glance, she tiptoed over the melting pool and headed to the kitchen.
A single chime forced Justine to change course and plod to her computer screen. After tapping the keypad, she straightened her shoulders.
The cat sashayed behind.
Taug’s bland face appeared larger than life in her living room. “Glad to see you, Justine.”
“It’s rather late for a social call, don’t you think?”
Taug’s face remained impassive. “I need you here—in person.”
Justine shook her head, rubbing one damp foot against her leg. “Now?”
“Immediately. It’s urgent.”
“And if I decide to wait till morning?”
“You won’t live to see the sunrise.”
Justine strode into Taug’s brilliantly lit lab, her shoulders back and her attitude marching before her. “This had better be good.”
Taug limped across the room, meeting Justine halfway. “It’s not. Trust me.”
Justine’s attention zeroed in on Taug’s shredded boots with a snide smirk. “What? A dog attack you? An Ingot—?”
Taug flicked a tentacle toward the wall screen where a Universal Reports clip played on a continuous loop.
“The Newearth Inter-Alien Alliance Committee has been warned of a secret weapon placed somewhere in the Central Basin, ready to be discharged at a moment’s notice. Both the Supreme Council and the Crestar authorities insist that they know nothing about it, while the Ingoti and the Uanyi ambassadors have yet to respond. Newearth citizens in the area are advised to stay close to home and only venture out if absolutely necessary until this threat has passed. If you learn—”
Justine stiffened, her hands clenched. She turned to Taug. “Why?”
“I have to be sure that you’ll do exactly as I say.”
Justine marched to the wall-pad and slammed her fist on the console. The screen blinked to black. “What do you want?”
“Kill Derik. Publicly. It has to be witnessed by every race, and it has to look like you saved Newearth from utter destruction.”
Justine pounded over to Taug and pushed her face within centimeters of his. “Why?”
Taug pulled back and sauntered over to the pool wall. “Because it’ll be true. Due to some unforeseen circumstances—” His tentacle splayed across the glassy surface. “—the Inter-Alien Commission has become aware of certain Cresta activities that strain our relationship. If they learn of Derik’s existence, of his origin, it would set into effect a rather grave chain of events.”
“Why should I care? I can always leave—”
Taug turned and faced Justine, his bulbous eyes gleaming. “Two reasons. First, you would be hunted to your destruction and second, Derik would be forced to accept your guilt—before he dies.” Taug retreated to a dissecting tube and swirled a tentacle in the murky water. “There are other reasons, of course, but I think those will do.”
Justine folded her arms high across her heaving chest. Her voice rose like a hissing whisper. “You never planned to save him. He was always a tool, a specimen to dissect and study.”
Taug glanced at Justine. “At your trial, you refused to state your beliefs, even about yourself. I reserve the same right. For much the same reason.”
“And that would be?”
“Because no one would believe me.” Taug sighed as he twitched a knife off the metal table and twirled it. “Time waits for no man…or Crestonian.”
Justine’s gaze fixed on the knife. “I’ll bring him. Kill him yourself—if you can.”
“Not good enough. I awoke you for a simple purpose, to do this one, small service. Either you do it, or you face extinction.”
Justine stalked to the door. “When I called you an insect, I had no idea how insulting to the creepy, crawly world I was being. I repent my miscalculation.”
Darkness shrouded the quiet cabin while a waxing moon peeked between through bare branches. A single owl hooted in the distance.
Cerulean lay on a rumpled bed, his eyes closed, one arm thrown over his face in an attitude of peaceful repose. His bare upper chest peeked out from the silky white sheets that covered the rest of his body.
A pounding on the door forced him to drop his arm from his face and issue a groan from the depth of his being. “Who the heck—?”
The cabin began to shake. Thrusting the sheets aside, Cerulean shot forward and grabbed yesterday’s pants and sweater. “Hold on! I’m coming. Sheesh, you’d think the—” He staggered into his pants.
Justine was caught in the act of attempting to put the door back in its natural position, though the jagged hinges screamed a different truth.
Using his sweater as a pointer, Cerulean demanded, “What’d you do to my door?”
Justine tapped it into place. “I’ll replace the hinges later. Right now, we need to talk.”
Cerulean flicked the sweater over his head and pulled it into position. Padding barefoot over the cold floor, he gestured abruptly toward the kitchen. “Coffee, first.”
As she perched on a tall stool, Justine gazed around the herb-strewn room. Bunches hung ornamentally from the rafters while others lay like fallen soldiers in neat rows next to carefully labeled jars. “You make your own teas?”
“I’m learning.” He flicked the coffee machine on and grabbed two mugs. “The Amens community grows everything from anise to wintergreen, and they know a thing or two about soups too. One of these days, I may open a little shop like the one Alcina used to have.”
Justine’s gaze turned inward, scanning unseen files. “Alcina?”
“You wouldn’t know her.” He splashed steaming coffee into the cups with reckless abandon. “She was one of the early settlers, before your time—here—I mean.” He blew rising curls of steam off his mug and took a sip. Nodding to her untouched cup, he sauntered to the table and slouched onto the bench. “I assume you didn’t get me out of bed at the ungodly hour of—” he flicked a glance at an old-fashioned clock on the wall. “It’s only three-fifteen?”
Justine slid off her perch and strode to the table, the steaming cup in her unscathed hand. “While you were slumbering in ignorant bliss, I was constructing a plan to save Derik and scanning through multitudinous files.”
Cerulean’s eyes twinkled and his lips twitched. “Multitudinous? I’m impressed.” He shoved a chair out with his foot. “I don’t usually do anything multitudinous until I’ve had at least two cups of coffee.”
“You don’t need coffee. You’re just lazy.” She sat in the offered chair, her back straight and uncompromising, though she tapped her knee with a nervous finger. “I know the mystery.” Cerulean sat up, his gaze glued to hers.
“Governor Jane Right is older than the hills. In fact, she shouldn’t even be alive. And she wouldn’t be—if she were human.”
Cerulean leaned back with a low whistle. “What is she?”
“Either a Cresta experiment gone right, an alien we don’t know about, or—” Her gaze wandered toward the black window. “—she’s an android, like me.”
Clasping his fingers together, Cerulean appraised Justine. “And who are you?”
Justine dropped her gaze. “You mean, what am I?”
“No. Who are you?”
Looking up, Justine blinked back unaccustomed tears. “A mystery. No one knows.” She shrugged. “There are others like me. I worked with one on a transport; the captain needed protection in a dangerous world.” A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “A Mr. Max Wheeler—as naïve as a newborn babe.”
Cerulean shook his head. “Naïve is not the word that comes to mind when I think of an—”
“Android? No. Well, that just shows how much you know.” She rose and meandered to the window, her reflection in the black frame appearing like a ghost. “We were created by a race you know little about. Even the Luxonians don’t have much interaction with them. They are secretive by nature, but they’re also immensely advanced. Few races dare to challenge their closed-door policy.” She reached up and traced her face on the glass.
“Many generations ago, the Cresta leadership approached them, offering their abundant scientific skills in exchange for information. Soon after, a mighty plague swept through Cre- star, decimating over a third of their population. No one knew for certain who sent the plague, but no one had a third of a population to spare in discovering the truth.” She turned and faced Cerulean. “So, you see, there is much you don’t know.”
Cerulean rose and stepped to Justine’s side. He traced her chin with a soft touch. “I know a woman who lay helpless on a steel table and did not regret her decision to save two human lives.”
Justine held his gaze a moment before breaking away. “In that case, it may interest you to know that Governor Right has also been involved in several cases where questions about unlawful experimentation have been brought before the Inter-Alien Commission and were summarily dismissed. Apparently, the Ingoti ambassador has some interest as well, for he appeared at each hearing to see the evidence first hand.”
Cerulean refilled his coffee mug. “So, what do you think?”
“Crestas simply like to experiment. It’s in their blood or ooze, whatever you want to call the sap that flows through their veins. Ingots have a long history of drug running. It wouldn’t surprise me if they have a profit margin to protect.”
“And the illustrious governor?”
“Who doesn’t like to rewrite history for personal glorification?”
Cerulean leaned against the counter. “You’ve done well. This answers a lot of questions. I can see how Mrs. Hoggsworth’s questions and Bala’s investigation upset the delicate balance that has kept Newearth in blissful ignorance.”
“Except for the unfortunate casualties.”
Cerulean’s gaze strayed to the herbs. “Yes. Except for them.” He frowned and thrust a finger forward. “And Derik? Where does this leave him?”
Justine drained the last of her coffee and placed the cup gently in the porcelain sink. “Oh, did I fail to mention that I have been ordered to kill him in a public spectacle, or I’ll be hunted to my destruction?”
Derik tapped at his computer console, the blue light reflect- ing off his face. A half-eaten sandwich and a small, green drink lay at his right. He frowned at the archived reports scrolling down the screen in front of him. Holographic images created years earlier popped from the surface, including one with the subtext: “Tarragon, scientist of unparalleled ability, honored for his exceptional service to Crestar.”
Derik studied the hologram. The slump-shouldered, bulbous-eyed Cresta had a wise but somber look about him. As if he knew better than to trust accolades and honors. Taug resembled his dad a bit, especially around the eyes.
Continuing his search, Tarragon’s name appeared again, highlighted this time under a bold heading: “Traitor in our midst!” Followed by reports of Tarragon’s disappearance, and just a short time later, the appearance of his body—“Discovered by his son, Taug.” This time the hologram showed a broken Tarragon, his face distorted with anguish.
Derik’s hands shook as he considered the holographic image before him. He blinked back tears. His hand, poised above the off button, froze when he caught sight of a short, highlighted statement a few lines below: “Taug appointed to Second Degree, in grateful recognition for his valuable service to Crestar.”
Stunned, Derik stared at the rotating image of a young Taug, a tentacle raised in a wave, wearing a bemused smile.
Skidding his chair backward, Derik jumped forward and leaped for the door, leaving his heavy, winter coat draped over the back of the couch.
Once inside Taug’s dark, silent laboratory, Derik inched his way across to the desk by the west wall. Heavy fog shrouded the nearly full moon. Glowing red monitors and reflected light from other Vandi offices made it possible to sidle across the room without crashing into anything.
Sliding into Taug’s unadorned office chair, Derik tapped the computer console embedded in the desk. It blinked to life, a blank space awaiting the necessary print to unlock its secrets. “Dang!” Muffling his irritation with his hand, he considered his options.
“Perhaps I can help.” Taug padded into view from the dark recess of the room. “You should have called. I wasn’t sleeping.”
Derik jumped to his feet, sending the chair slamming against the wall. “I—” Derik maneuvered around the desk and faced Taug, his bright eyes gleaming at the Cresta. “I’ve got to know. Did you—kill your dad? For the good of…so you could get…a raise?”
Taug shuffled around Derik, pulled the chair from the wall, and fell into it wearily. With a tap, a thin beam of light brightened the west end of the room. “It’s been a long night, and it’ll be a long day tomorrow.” He rubbed his dry, cracked lips with a tentacle. “I guess there is no harm in your knowing— now.” He gestured to one of the chairs at the far end of the room. “Make yourself comfortable. This could take a while.”
Derik shivered as he paced like a caged animal. “Just talk! Explain things to me—so that I don’t hate you.” Glancing at Taug, Derik’s face distorted as if pleading for his life.
Taug leaned back and wrapped two of his tentacles like a cradle behind his head. “My father, Tarragon, was a brilliant scientist, as I told you. But he had one weakness. He believed that he was right, even when it was not safe to do so. Stubbornness, plain and simple. He created three crossbreeds in all. Two met their demise early on, but you were his pride and joy. I think he really cared about you—as if he had spawned you himself.”
Derik halted, darting a look of horror at Taug, but the Cresta’s gaze was considering images of long ago and far away.
“When his activities were discovered, the whole family was disgraced. I had worked terribly hard to earn a position of relative safety within the scientific community. Suddenly, all my efforts were compromised. I became a pariah overnight. You can imagine my shame.”
Derik hugged his arms around his waist, his voice rising like a howl. “So you turned traitor? Against your own father?”
Taug glowered icily at Derik. “It was him or me—”
With a snarl, Derik fled the room.
“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” ~
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