Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter 17, Part II

I Was Just Considering My Options

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.”

“Where?”

“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….”

Derik blinked.

“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.

“No greetings?”

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.”

“Lucky you.”

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?”

“Your government—”

“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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Six

—Mountains and Valleys—

Following in Their Footsteps

Ishtar and Tobia climbed hills, trudged through mountain passes, and marched day after hot, sticky day, rarely talking and never smiling.

When the outline of a village rose in the distance, Tobia pointed and cleared his throat. “Maybe, we’ll finally enjoy a little hospitality.”

A memory of the reception he received from Lud’s clan flashed through Ishtar’s mind. He stumbled, righted himself, and swallowed. “That’d be a welcome change.”

As they drew near, Tobia wrinkled his nose. “What’s that awful stench?”

Ishtar froze, then his arm jerked out and he gripped Tobia’s sleeve. “Wait here a moment.” He jogged ahead and circled the first hut. Oh, God! Bile rose in his throat as he stared at the remains of a massacre.

Stagnant blood pooled on the ground and splattered across the dwellings. Snarling dogs chewed on unnamed bones.

His stomach heaving, Ishtar ran to a grassy bank and soon retched the contents of his stomach.

Tobia jogged forward, laid his hand on Ishtar’s back, and turned away. His voice fell to a whisper. “I would too—if I had anything in me.”

Wiping his mouth, Ishtar clenched his jaw and straightened. “Sorry. I should be stronger—with all I’ve seen.” He shook his head. “But it was a shock.”

Tobia crept forward, his hand over his mouth and nose. “You think anyone’s still alive?”

Ishtar moved stealthily into the village. “There’s only one way to find out.”

As they searched through the primitive village, a groan rose in the air. Ishtar quickened his pace.

A skinny, toothless old man lay near a grass hut. A bloody cut on his leg, purple bruises on his face, and the way he cradled his left arm told the tale of recent events.

Tobia glanced around. “You know more about healing, so you can tend to him while I see if I look for others.”

Ishtar knelt at the old man’s side and helped him to sit up.

The old man snatched at Ishtar’s sleeve. “Water!”

A jug near a doorway caught Ishtar’s eye. He grabbed it and jogged around the village, a sour taste still burning in his mouth. A creek bubbled in the distance. He filled the jug, slaked his own thirst, and returned to the old man.

The old man’s hands shook as he slurped great mouthfuls. He wiped his lips with the back of his trembling hand and nodded. “Thank you.”

“What’s your name?”

“Wael. I was the patriarch of this ruined village.”

Leading a dark-skinned, wrinkled old woman and another old man, Tobia wandered back to Ishtar. “I found a few others too weak to rise, but with water and food, they’ll soon recover.”

Ishtar passed the jug to the newcomers and stood, surveying the scene. “Raiders must’ve killed the men and taken the women and children.”

Tobia pointed to the rummy-eyed elders crouching near at hand. “Why leave them?”

Ishtar shrugged. “They’re no threat and no use. It was easier to get what they wanted and leave.”

One old woman groaned. “I wish I were dead.”

Wael shook his head as he surveyed the bodies shriveling in the sun. “Who’ll bury them?”

Ishtar glanced at Tobia, and they shared an understanding gaze.

~~~

Tobia relished the cool breeze of evening. Rubbing his aching back, he returned from the burial duty and stood before the strongest of the old women. He wiped his sweaty brow. “We need something to eat.”

Her limbs shaking, the old woman rose and limped to a ramshackle hut on the outskirts of the village. Glancing aside, she peered at Tobia. “My name’s Olna, and I be the oldest living member of the clan…not much to boast of now, I know. But—” She ambled inside.

Tobia waited, rubbing grit from his eyes.

Wood scraped across dirt and a labored grunt rose.

“If you want to eat, come help me, boy.”

Tobia crossed over the threshold and found Olna leaning on a sturdy table.

“Move it over there.” She pointed to the east wall.

Dutifully, Tobia shoved the table aside and watched Olna rip a covering of wood from the back wall. From a deep hole, she tugged a large, tightly woven basket. Tobia gripped the handle and pulled it into the light. “What’s this?”

“Our salvation.” Olna grinned a nearly toothless smile. “I’ve seen my share of attacks, and we old women know to keep precious things well hidden.”

Flipping back the basket lid, Tobia’s heart sang. Uncounted packets lay before his eyes like a sparkling stream to a thirsty man. He lifted one and unwrapped the leaves. Inside, grain the color of honey glistened, sending his stomach into spasms and his mouth-watering. “Thank God.”

Olna nodded. “And you can thank me, too, while you’re at it. No one remembers the old ways and tucks good food aside for bad times—no one but Old Olna.”

Tobia wrapped his arm around the old woman and gently hugged her shoulder. “I thank you, indeed.”

~~~

Ishtar clasped his hands before his face and pondered the melancholy assembly before him. They were fed for the moment. But their slim resources would not last long. He peered at Olna as she perched on a bench outside her family hut, her hands still, and her gaze unfocused. “What’ll you do now, Olna?”

Olna’s head lifted a fraction. “What is there now but to die?”

Three old men and two other women crouched around a meager fire. Wael shook his finger at her. “Die then, old woman, but the rest of us” —he waved at other survivors— “we’ve a mind to live yet a little longer.”

Shrugging, Olna turned her gaze to the food basket. “You go on then, Wael, and farm the land, scare up some meat, and pick rations to last us through the season.”

Frowning, Wael rose and shuffled to a hut. He grabbed the shovel leaning against the wall. “I’ll start now. Don’t think I can’t.”

Ishtar rose and glanced at Tobia, who wrapped a wet cloth around the injured arm of one old man. “You won’t survive here, alone. You’ll have to come with us.”

Olna shook her head. “I don’t know that I can leave them…” She peered at the mounds in the distance. “You buried them, but someone should watch over their remains and pray for their spirits.”

Wael leaned on the shovel, his eyes glistening. “They would want us to survive.” He slapped the shovel. “What else did they fight for…but to have someone live…and remember them?”

Tobia stepped forward. “We’ll place markers around the mound so that anyone coming through will know of them. Though many perished, they were not forgotten.”

Ishtar rose and stepped toward the first hut. “We’ll leave tomorrow. But before then, let’s gather everything useful—anything you wish to take.” He glanced at the setting sun. “Time passes, and we need to move on.”

Tobia bit his lip. “Where do you think the raiders have gone?”

Ishtar sucked in a deep breath. “That’s what I’m afraid to find out.”

~~~

Tobia shared the last of the grain with Olna and the assembly on the third evening of their journey. Everyone settled around a small fire, exhausted after a hard day’s march through thick grass under a warm sun.

Olna chuckled as she swished the grains in her mouth, softening them before swallowing.

Startled, Tobia nudged her with his shoulder. “What’s so funny?”

After wiping her lips, Olna smiled and stared at the pink horizon. “My granddaughter loved to sit in my lap and hear the old stories. She was never content until I told at least three.” She lifted three fingers to clarify and shook her head, her grin fading. “Ay, but there’s no one to remember them now.”

With a sigh, Tobia shrugged. “Perhaps you can tell them to our children. Though they belong to another clan, we’re all related in some measure, created by the same God. The stories belong to all of us—do they not?”

Tears slipped down the old woman’s face. “But there’s few of us old ones left. Those brutes will attack the next village soon.”

Jerking upright, Tobia glanced from Ishtar back to the woman. “You know where they’re heading?”

“Though they spoke poorly, they questioned us about the nearest clans. We refused to answer…until forced. But the dogs learned what they wanted. This final conquest will be their greatest triumph, they said—”

Rising, Ishtar stepped closer, knelt, and peered into the old woman’s eyes. “What direction?”

Olna shrugged. “We’re following in their footsteps, I think.” Heaving a miserable sigh, she shuddered. “They’re far from their homeland…but the leader said they’d soon turn back.” She wiped away her tears. “Won’t be soon enough for those in their path.”

Tobia gripped Ishtar’s shoulder. “Could they be heading—?”

Ishtar shook his head. “There’s not much between us and home—nothing to turn them aside.”

Tobia leapt to his feet, his stomach churning. “We must warn them!”

Meeting Tobia’s gaze, Ishtar nodded. “Yes, we must.”

Heart pounding, Tobia reached for his staff. “I’ll leave right away.”

Ishtar grabbed his arm. “You were lost and starved, wandering in the desert not long ago.” He glanced at the old people hunch-shouldered and clearly afraid. “They trust you—they need you.” He retrieved his own staff. “I’ll go.”

A ripple of terror washed over Tobia. “But, Ishtar, you’re the enemy—remember?”

With a clenched jaw, Ishtar faced the setting sun. “Not anymore.”

Barely controlling his trembling limbs, Tobia watched Ishtar sprint into the diminishing horizon. Vitus’ face rose like a specter in his mind. Tears blinded him.

Olna patted his arm. “He’s a strong man, that one. Don’t worry, he’ll be safe.”

Tobia’s throat constricted. “It’s not him I’m worried about.”

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” ~T. S. Eliot

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Enemy Self

cyborg-binary-1536624_1280

Intergalactic Trading Ship: Bountiful

Captain: Lu Kimberling

Hired Protection—Androids: Justine Santana and Max Wheeler

Justine’s private internal record:

Ship’s Lounge, Captain Kimberling steps in.

“Hey, you two, one last stop at Ingilium, and you can look for other work. I’m going to take a breather on Helm. The Bhuaci are harmless, so I won’t be needing your services for a while.”

Oh, joy! Wheeler is going to give his opinion. Like the captain cares….

“Are you certain that’s wise, sir? The Bhuaci may be harmless, but they are frequently attacked. The Telathot incursion nearly decimated—”

Brilliant. Get the highest paying ship’s captain irritated while light years from the next hope of employment.

“Don’t lecture me, Wheeler. I’ve stopped there often enough and found myself a secure place. Cresta’s and Ingots could invade till the sun explodes, and they wouldn’t nudge me a millimeter.”

Know the meaning of the word vaporized? If Wheeler were human, he’d be bright red right now.

“As you say, sir.”

“Sure, compliance always makes up for being a total idiot—”

“Listen, I’m going to sleep. The crew just changed shifts and we’re in dead space, so it should be nice an’ boring for a while.”

“As you say, sir.”

“By the time I need you again, Wheeler, learn a few new expressions, would you?”

“As you—”

“Ah, shut up.”

Poor Captain Kimberling. He hasn’t got one itsy, bitsy clue…

~~~

One hour later…

Wheeler may be huge, but he’s as bulky as an Ingot and lumbers like a Cresta. His brown, steady eyes peer straight through the lounge bay window displaying our bright, red spectrum universe as it swirls amid black space. I’d like to paint that view. Someday.

 What does Wheeler think about in that tectonic brain of his? Here goes nothing… I’ll be subtle. Promise.

“You do that on purpose, don’t you?”

“What?”

“Egg him on.”

“Egg. Him. On. What is that supposed to mean? No, don’t tell me. Another one of your human colloquialisms? You need to decide what you are, Cyborg.”

“Like you?”

“I have an identity. I know my role and I—”

“Play the fool.”

“Who’s the fool? You’re the one pretending to be human. ‘Look at me, I have a moral code…’ You were lucky to come out in one piece on Terra Seventeen.”

“I am human. At least…genetically.”

His grip is stronger than I anticipated. Good to know….

“Shall I rip your arm off and show you the technology that holds you together?”

Twist, turn and elbow to the mid-section. Leg sweep under the knees. Pinch Wheeler by the soft spot at the base of his neck…

 “Let me remind you that when they put me together, they included the DNA of a brilliant human mind. Not a Cresta—”

“I’m not Cresta!”

“Ingoti then.”

“Damn you!”

Pity on the fool. Oops, didn’t mean to shove that hard.

“That almost sounded human.”

“DNA means nothing!”

There he goes again. He really ought to turn beet red just to clarify himself.

“So, you’re human too? Genetically speaking?”

“I’m a cyborg. Humanity never claimed me. I never claimed them.”

“But your cyborg family welcomed you with open arms, right?”

“Go to Bothmal!”

“Please—watch your language.”

“Like anything could offend you.”

“I have sensibilities.”

“Just no sense. Being human—genetically speaking—won’t protect you. Only a cyborg—”

“You won’t live forever.”

“Near enough. Better than anyone else.”

“Uanyi and Ingots live for millenniums. Luxonians too. Are they happy?”

“Hades! Who’s looking for happiness? I want to survive for as long as possible.”

“Someday…you’ll die.”

“Not if I can keep getting parts. Besides, who really cares?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it? You’ve never given anyone a reason to care—”

Uh, oh… blinking, blaring sirens! As usual, humans typically overstate the obvious. Here comes the captain, charging ahead like a Cresta at a science convention.

“Hey, you two, looks like we’ve got unexpected visitors. Power up!”

Sigh. Wheeler’s got bloodlust in his eyes again.

“Ready, Human?”

“As much as you, Cyborg.”

“Don’t look so grim. We’ll come out of this alive. Probably. It’s a living.”

I wonder…

“Or a really long death sentence.”

~~~

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