Mostly, I Live Life

Rebah stared—turning her head as far back as it would go—at the crow perched on an old wooden post in front of rows of golden corn stalks, as she drove no less than sixty on the rural Illinois road.

She should’ve stopped. By the time she made up her mind and looked in the rearview mirror, the proud plumage was flying high across the cornfield into the bean field.

Where’re you going?

It couldn’t hear her and wouldn’t care to answer if it did. Rebah only wanted to stare at it long enough to imbibe the magical power it held—the mystical passion embodied in a carefree moment.

She glanced at her handbag leaning forlornly on the passenger seat, the strap folded across the open pocket that held the keys to her current existence—her cell phone and her to-do list.

Jed, she repeated. Jed. Not Jeb or Jacob. It’s Jed. She tried to picture the man her husband told her owned the shop.

“Tall, lanky, elderly guy with gray hair.”

 Gee, thanks, Honey. Got it now.

 Rebah stretched her mind back. Had Brad ever used figurative language? Did he ever describe a person as more than a combination of physical attributes? It was one of the things she’d loved about him—his honest, clear thinking. Never sarcastic like her dad or manipulative like her sister. Just a straightforward kind of man.

Three plump blackbirds stood at odd angles to each other on the road ahead. Apparently, they weren’t in a hurry, but she was. As her car zoomed up to the twenty-yard mark, they flapped into the blue September sky, majestic and unperturbed. “We’re heading on anyway, Lady. Don’t think for a second that you altered our plans.”

She wanted to laugh. Giggle. A smirk would do. But she had to find Jed’s countryside shop and buy a part for the mower. It was an old mower and needed an old part, preferably one that worked. It was all Greek to her. Mowers belonged in the same category as electricity and nuclear fusion.

A right on Acorn Road, two streets down, and on the left, 119 E. Acorn Rd. a workshop appeared as if by magic. A wooden structure built back and to the left of a cottage that belonged in a land of “far away and long ago.” Charming hardly covered it.

The rock driveway lined with late-season flowers curved around the back of the shop. She parked, rolled down the window, and imbibed.

The porch cozied over two garden beds run riot with daisies, asters, chrysanthemums, and coneflowers. Cornstalks tied to the railings decorated the steps as a scarecrow stood watch, both his smile and his pitchfork ready for service. Hanging plants perked up the mellow season with dashes of red and green, while ceramic squirrels scampered down the steps, leading to a maple tree just breaking into full autumn glory.

Rebah climbed out of her car and exhaled. “Good God in heaven!”

“Yeah, I’d say that’s about right.”

The man’s deep voice followed by a light chuckle turned Rebah’s gaze.

Coming from the dim interior of the shop, ambled a man exactly as her husband described. Except her husband had failed to mention the bulbous nose, oversized ears, long grey beard, and the sweetest eyes she had ever delved.

“What can I do for you?”

Rebah wondered if she was in love. She wanted to live in this little house, sit on a bench, watch this gentle giant work in his shop, and absorb the conviviality that emanated from the air in this enchanted spot on Acorn Road.

She spluttered, “Oh, yes, actually, my-uh, husband sent me over to get a part. George. My husband. He needs something you have.”

She wasn’t sure if that last part was a question or a statement of fact, but she prayed Jed was a mind reader since she could no longer rely on the power of speech.

“George? Oh, yes!” Jed grinned impishly as befitted the gnome-spirit he represented. “I have the part right here in my shop. I was just cleaning it a bit. They get a mite dusty sitting on the shelf, don’t you know.”

A howl of laughter fought earnestly with a sob of despair. By all the saints, Rebah knew about dust! Dust bunnies and spider webs had beaten her into submission long ago. Who on earth cleaned an engine part? A pitiful squeak was the best she could manage as the battle ended in a draw.

“Well, come on in and have a cup of something while you wait. I like a little spiced cider as the evening draws close. Perks a fellow up after a long day.” He ambled back into the shop, turning a switch on the wall just inside the doorway.

Yellow lamplight flooded the room, conjuring images of children’s fairytale books. Cherry stained shelves lined the walls, filled with an impossible variety of projects. Small engine parts, kitchen essentials—toasters and mixers, a variety of wall clocks, one small organ, two violins, and, of course, an assortment of broken toys stood, sat, or leaned in repose for their appointment with Jed’s dexterous fingers.

Rebah tried to shake herself into conscious reality. “So, you’re a fixer? A repair guy?” Oh heck, that seemed as inadequate as calling a CIA agent a sleuth.

After pouring a fresh cup of cider into a mug from a dark brown jug and setting it within easy reach, Jed ran a cloth lovingly over the metal part that—in Rebah’s opinion—hardly deserved the attention.

She sipped the cider, warmth tingling all over. Her eyes strayed to the mower part. She frowned. It was just metal, after all. It would go in a machine, get dirty again, and no one would care in the least.

“I fix those things that I can. Mostly, I live life.”

A lump formed in Rebah’s throat. She blinked.

Two crows and three blackbirds hopped up to the open doorway, their bright eyes keeping a careful watch on Rebah.

Jed laughed. He laid the metal part on his workbench, scooped an old can into a plump bag hanging on the wall, then carried the full container of seeds to the doorway. He scattered supper to the hungry throng and watched them in serene joy.

Rebah watched his every move as absorbed as it was the finale of her favorite primetime drama. “God, I want what you’ve got.”

It felt like cold water in the face when Rebah realized that she had said the words out loud.

“Eh?” Jed returned to his machine part. He wrapped it in a clean cloth and laid it at the bottom of a paper bag. He folded the bag neatly and handed it to Rebah.

She slurped the rest of her drink, letting the warm tingly feeling bring a smile to her face, covering her confusion. Perhaps he hadn’t heard. “How much do I owe you?”

“Ten ought to cover it. It’s a recycled part and didn’t need much mending.”

She ran to her car, dropped the bag on the back seat, shuffled through her purse, found two fives, scurried back, and met Jed in front of his porch steps. She handed him the money. A longing nearly broke her heart. “I wish my place looked like this. More, I wish I felt like…this…place.”

To Rebah’s astonishment, Jed smiled.

“Yeah. That’s how I was when I first came here. I’d been in the army for more years than I can remember, fought people I didn’t want to fight, lost family to drugs and alcohol, though my youngest sister died of cancer last year. But you know, the old woman who owned this place said that it just needed tender care. If I’d give it that and do every task with gentle love, I’d be repaid in full.” Jed tapped the railing. “By golly, she wasn’t off the mark.”

Tears filled Rebah’s eyes. “You don’t mean that my place could look like this?”

“No. This place belongs here on Acorn Road. But the beauty I wake up to every day? Why, that belongs everywhere that’ll allow it in.”

~~~

When Rebah drove up to her short straight driveway, her husband, George stood on their overgrown lawn, grinning.

She grinned back. “I’ve got the part, and I’ll get dinner on in a minute, Love.”

When a crow flapped overhead, she knew whom she’d invite to dinner next.

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/crow-bird-animal-plumage-beak-3604685/

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction Novel

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Sci-Fi Short Stories https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Between the Raindrops

Saundra realized that running between the raindrops, like so many things in life, wasn’t meant to be taken literally. So why was she scurrying madly to her neighbor’s house with any expectation that she would be dry when she got there?

Bradley stared hard as she leaped over the threshold into the open living room-kitchen of their ranch-style house.

“An umbrella was out of the question, huh?”

Saundra didn’t deem it necessary to reply. She knew why she’d come, and it outweighed mere comfort. She couldn’t look Bradley in the eye.

A woman’s voice screeched from the top of the stairs. “Hey! Kiddos, get ready for bed now, or Sandy won’t read you a story.”

The collective sighing, whimpering, and bickering over who got to pick out the first story plucked Saundra’s raw nerves. Who did she think she was? Superwoman coming to the rescue?

She peeled off her soggy shoes and figured that one evening in damp socks wouldn’t kill her. The kids might. But that was merely theoretical.

Anne tottered down the stairs on skyscraper heels, wearing a tight-fitting, burgundy dress that clearly hadn’t been outside the closet in years. Once landed, she tinkered with her earrings and shot a glance at her husband. “Get up there and make them behave.”

An eye roll clarified Bradley’s lack of enthusiasm for the assignment as he mounted the steps.

The initial plea-bargaining Anne used when asking for one night out with her husband without the kids had merely sent a flicker of anxiety through Saundra’s evening plans. No big deal. The kids were a little rambunctious Anne had said but easier than her nephews. Of course, Godzilla was easier than the aforementioned nephews.

A little girl’s scream, a man’s barking order, serious commotion, two slamming doors, pounding footsteps, and Bradley’s flushed face glowering at his wife made Saundra reconsider her assessment. Maybe Godzilla would be easier. After all, there was only one of him.

Anne snatched a lavender purse off a scratched end table and charged for the door. “They’ll settle down. Just let them cool off and read a story with milk and cookies before bed.”

Bradley jerked his car keys around like he’d prefer to catapult them rather than put them to their rightful purpose.

The thought, Get drunk fast, shot through Saundra’s mind. She nodded at Anne’s retreating back, dumbfounded.

It wasn’t until the Ford Explorer squealed into the night that she realized that the kids didn’t even know her. And she didn’t know them.

A little girl’s voice called from the tops of the steps—Sandy?

~~~

The milk and cookies were easy to locate.

Five-year-old Jimmy had a future in mountain climbing the way he scaled the kitchen counter, scrambled to the cabinet over the refrigerator, plucked the hidden cookies from the depths, (next to the chardonnay), and leaped to the floor with his prize.

Jan, at the cultivated age of seven, demurely retrieved three short glasses, lugged the gallon of milk to the table, and sportingly poured everyone a full glass.

Remarkably, a story compromise was reached on relatively benign terms. Each child picked out a short story, and Saundra got to pick a long one. After teeth had been brushed, the kids joined their sitter on the couch and curled up one on each side.

Their body warmth, light patter of rain, and the yellow lamplight settled Saundra’s nerves into a state of peaceful repose. Books made for an evening of simple pleasure. Every Friday afternoon, she read a short story out loud to her high school class. They always groaned the first time. They never groaned the second.

She cracked open the first book and climbed inside. Along with the kids.

By the time the clock chimed midnight, Saundra wondered if she should call the police. After The Velveteen Rabbit, the kids had gone to bed quietly. She shuddered through the late news, and the rain had quit, hours ago. She stretched out on the couch fully aware that she’d fall asleep within seconds.

Before her eyes closed, a door was thrust open and keys slammed on the counter, jolting her nerves wide awake. Loud voices. Slurred speech. Hard soled shoes pounding up the steps.

Saundra’s first instinct was to quiet the two down before they woke the kids. But the realization that this was their house shushed her mouth.

“Sandy? Where’d you get to, girl?”

Sandy rose and stepped into the kitchen.

Anne’s smeared eyeliner, drooping lower lip, and glassy stare froze Saundra in place.

“There you are. Thought maybe you’d abandoned me.”

“I’ve never do that.”

Water ran. Bradley’s heavy tread crossed the room above.

Saundra frowned as she glanced up. “The kids are asleep.”

“Sure. You did great.” She dropped her purse on the counter. “Mind if I pay you in the morning? I doubt my writing’s too clear right now.”

Slipping on her damp shoes Saundra sucked in a deep breath. She wanted the quiet peaceful time with the kids cuddled on each side of her, listening with bated breath, their eyes glued to the illustrated page. Sharing their love of a good story, life itself.

A lump rose in her throat, and words got stuck on the way out. “You two have a good time?”

Anne shrugged. “We drank and talked about the garbage in our lives.” Kicking off her shoes, she lost balance and had to grip the counter. “Piss poor world we live in. Kids will hate us when they grow up. Might hate us now, for all I know.”

Tears threatened. Saundra turned the door handle. “They don’t hate anyone. Yet.”

A star-filled sky accompanied Saundra home. The smell of late summer rain, wet earth, a faint rose scent lifted her spirits. She could hear Jan’s voice pleading, see Jimmy’s dark eyes imploring. “Will you come again and read to us?”

She would. She’d even run between the raindrops if she had to.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction Novel

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Sci-Fi Short Stories https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/digiart-composing-book-cover-1979293/

Alive and Willful

—Newearth—

Like all Ingots, Lang’s body from the neck down was encased in techno-armor, but her form-fitting suit outlined the fantasies of multiple beings

She peered at the photo and had to ask—“Was I ever young?”

Riko, a slim Uanyi, could not say. He sat behind his desk with three saucepans lines up along the edge, a large datapad front and center, a holograph pad on the left, and a half-eaten slice of carrot cake on the right. Two baskets of colorful plants hung in front of a large window that now only reflected the outside security light.

Lang laid the photo on Riko’s desk and stared pointedly at the pots. “You keep your kitchen utensils close at hand, eh?”

With a shrug, Riko stood and strolled over to a small cooler unit. “I’m ordering new. Wendell tries, but the kid is hard on kitchenware.”

“I thought he just worked the tables.”

“He only has to look at a pot and it falls to the ground, dents, cracks to pieces…I don’t know. It’s like the kid has a magnetic storm following him everywhere he goes.”

Lang shrugged. “He was a reject that his mama saved. Few Ingots get through infancy—”

Riko hauled two cold drinks out of the cooler, snapped them open, and handed one to Lang.

Lang eyed the bright blue drink and grinned. “Thanks. I was feeling a little parched.”

“How about you?” Riko snapped up the photo. “This is old. Somebody treasured it. Most people only have digital memories.” One eyebrow rose. “Especially Ingots.”

Lang took a long swallow and leaned on the back of a dark brown office couch. “I was a reject too. You’d be surprised how many of us there are. In my case, I was borderline, and because I had a pretty face, they let me through. Never knew my mama or daddy DNA. That’s why Wendell is so different. His mama should never have known. She must’ve been from one of those back-to-nature groups. They practically stripped themselves naked, then tried to raise their young the old way.”

“But someone took this—” Riko waved the photo and took a swig from the bottle.

“Wasn’t any family relation—”

A knock on the door turned their attention.

Another quick drink and Riko strode over and swung open his office door.

Wendell stood in the hall between the café kitchen and the office, sheepish but smiling. “I fixed the sink. And everything is all cleaned up.”

Riko nodded. “Good.” He jogged to his desk and swiped one of the pots from the line. “Give your ma this. I decided to go with another set, so she can use it. No point in throwing it out.”

Wendell accepted the pot, cuddling it in both arms, a grateful servant of a kind benefactor.

Riko shuffled his feet, awkward kindness hindering his usual impatience. “You can go home now. See you in the morning.”

Reciting from memory, Wendell raised his eyes to the ceiling and pointed emphatically, his voice imitating Riko’s command tone. “Bright and early!”

The two grinned at each other.

The depth of the shared moment almost broke Lang’s heart. As Riko closed the door, still grinning, Lang lifted the photo again. “So tell me again—how’d you get this?”

“It was on my desk this morning.” He took a final swig, wiped his lips, and met Lang’s stare. “Either someone is having a little fun with us, or we’d better keep our eyes open.”

Lang drained the last of the blue liquid. “Maybe both.” She shrugged. “But as a reporter, I’d sure like to know who—” With a staggering step, Lang fell onto the couch. “Oh, God!”

Riko ran to her side, his eyes wide, frightened. “What?”

“There was a man…he looked like a man. But now…I wonder.” She dropped her head in her hands, her gaze roving to Riko’s face. “Do you believe in the supernatural?”

Riko choked. He yanked open the recycle depository and tossed in the two empty bottles. “I believe there’s more to the universe than we see or understand if that’s what you mean.”

A tumble of emotions swirled through Lang’s system. “I mean an intentional being—beings. Alive and willful.”

“Like Omega?”

“Could be…but more.” Lang rose; logic overthrowing confusion. “Like the fact that you and I met, that Faye and Taug are buddies, that Cerulean even exists…the million and one oddities, proving that more than mere chance defines out fate.”

Riko dropped onto the couch wearily. “You asked if you’d ever been young…well, I grew up in a war zone, my ma was killed trying to protect a way of life that no longer existed, and I certainly never felt young.” He met Lang’s eyes. “Never.”

Lang plunked down next to Riko, their shoulders touching. “Me neither. I was plucked out of the Ingot world by some unknown hand and trained as a reporter before my synapses were set. My body has always been my biggest asset, but collected nerves saved my life. Yet, I’ve always felt sad.”

In uncharacteristic generosity and intimacy, Riko clasped Lang’s hand. “Me too.”

For a moment, Lang felt young again.

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
~William Shakespeare

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction Novel

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Sci-Fi Short Stories https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Photo https://pixabay.com/illustrations/surreal-hand-planet-heaven-galaxy-1447617/

Possibilities

Living in a fantasyland is fine. So long as I remember it’s not real. As a writer, I get to legitimize my role-playing, living the adventure of hero or villain as the case may be. But I’m not quite so dense as to believe that much of what I spend my cranium capacity on is little more than imagined reality.

Today, I’m sitting outside the local high school while my two middle daughters finish up their Drivers Ed classes. A gentle breeze blows and softens the intense heat of this summery day.

The last time I sat in this spot, I had plans well laid—practically none of which actually happened. I went from knowing my life trajectory to not being certain of anything. Even longstanding traditions—like going to Mass on Sunday—jumped the tracks and entered a new reality. One I never imagined.

Some people have told me that they just want things to go back to normal. While others have suggested the possibility of accepting a new normal. My guesstimate would be that we’ve always lived in a world of possibilities. The surprise is not that we live in fantasylands. The surprise is when we are shaken out of them.

Yesterday, the girls and I went to pick cherries from a neighbor’s tree. My friend had invited us several times, but I wanted to wait until she got all she wanted first and the luscious fruits were fully ripe. So, with a beautiful breeze blowing, the kids and I arranged to stop by with buckets in hand and harvest what we could. I knew what to expect—green leafy boughs bountifully speckled with ripe cherries.

But that’s not what we found. The tree was smaller, older, and there were few cherries among the sparse leaves. Where had the image in my mind come from? Experience, I told myself. History. Years of picking cherries off that same tree.

Only it wasn’t that same tree. It was older and worn and not so fruitful.

Long years ago, when my dad and mom divorced, I decided in a fit of self-preservation that I had no dad. I would expel his existence from my mind and cleanse my heart from the hurt of longing for a “real” father figure. But adulthood, a chance meeting (Actually after several grace-filled meetings), we developed a relationship. Though it wasn’t an ideal father-daughter-thing, it became a source of mutual kindness—love without counting or defining. As he nears his end—and at 91, I know he can’t go on forever—I look back on a friendship that could not have existed outside the grace of God.

Even my kids challenge my preconceptions. My older daughters tend to push the limits—managing things ahead of their age groups, amazing friends with their proficiency and abilities. So when my youngest came along, I naturally charged ahead, figuring that’s what she wanted. Guess not.

So as I think about it on this bright, blue-sky day, my ability to judge people and situations knows no bounds. I decide I know stuff not because I have amazing powers of forecasting, inside information, or unlimited spiritual insight, but because I simply want to get a handle on my life and decide between making a hot stew or cold egg salad sandwiches for dinner. Between calling a friend who hasn’t responded back in weeks and accepting the inevitable valley in our friendship. Between letting the poison of media-gossip roll off my shoulders or hugging it like a snake that strangles all hope of sincerity.

Accepting the mysteries of life and their involved vague possibilities mean that sometimes I get things wrong. I do have a dad, and I love the man more than words can say—partly because I have had to fight every demon in hell to hang onto our fragile relationship. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, what will happen with my friends, if the apples will ripen or rot, but I do believe that possibilities exist. That hope is not fantasy. That telling people what I “know” puffs my ignorance rather than fuels the informed.

Turns out that I won’t make a cherry pie, but we’ll have ice cream with a few cherries on top as a treat this week. A possible new friend asked if I wanted to meet for a cup of coffee. Recent media-gossip died a couldn’t-be-soon-enough death.

And I called my dad on Father’s Day.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/iced-coffee-cherry-cream-ice-cream-3429495/

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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

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The Wheel or the Ball

“This town is teeming with eligible bachelors. If you’re looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Cindy nodded, though her gaze stayed fixed on the hamster cage. She hadn’t honestly been listening. Of far more universal importance was whether Fred was sleeping…or…Gasp! Quite dead. There was no way on earth that her little girl was going to buy the I-don’t-know-what-happened—he-just-died excuse. Though the truth remained, Cindy really didn’t know what happened. Heck. He was a rodent after all. Rodents don’t live forever. Just seems like it when you’re a parent.

Jan stomped over, bent low, and added her gaze to the scene. “What we are looking at?”

Fred emerged from his wood-shaving encrusted boudoir. His whiskers twitching and his beady black eyes sparkling with a mischievous “Thought I was a goner, did ya?” expression.

Cindy sighed. Extravagantly. The munchkin drama wasn’t quite over. This tamed vermin would haunt her nights running the wobbly wheel of life a little longer. Oh well. He was rather cute for a critter with no tail and an independent personality.

She glanced at her desk. The jury duty summons sat next to her computer, which edged a stack of notebooks arranged for her convenience. She ignored them in order of importance. At the bottom, her house repair list. On top sat a list of dinner options. Grilled tuna and cheese sounded amazingly good right now.

“So, are we going out or what?”

“I’ve done my shopping, and church isn’t till Sunday. I’m not sure what going out would accomplish at this point.”

Eye roll. Jan had mastered it to a scintillating art form. “Just get out of the house, see something different. Maybe meet some new people. You know. Live-a-little.” Jan’s bug-eyed expression conveyed the theory that living involved effort beyond breathing and sustaining life functions.

Cindy begged to differ. “I’m still working on my lesson plans for next week, and the hens have taken up squatting rights in the garage. It’s time I gave them due notice.”

Thigh slap accompanied by yet another eye roll. Jan had it down. “Woman! You are so boring. All you ever do is work.”

Perhaps a change of location would ricochet the conversation into the outer atmosphere. Cindy swiped her muffin recipe book under her arm and charged into the kitchen. It was only two in the afternoon, and Patrick and Kelly loved muffins. Why not make them happy? Why not tilt the whole universe toward muffin-induced-joy?

The fact that the baking tins slammed on the counter like bullets discharged from a WWII blunderbuss did nothing to deter Jan’s train of thought. “We never have any fun!”

Apparently whining didn’t stop when one reached middle age.

Jan plopped down on the kitchen stool and proper her head on her hands. A picture of disconsolate teetering on the edge of depression. “I’m divorced, and you’re a widow. Men are a pain in the…well…you know, but we can’t live without them. Well, we can, but we’d rather not. Still, even though I’ve given up any hope of ever finding a decent guy, it’s still fun to look around and see what’s out there. Just for old time sake.” The fact that her voice had risen three octaves was duly noted.

Cindy sucked in a fresh breath of oxygen.

The ingredients practically assembled themselves. Wheat flour, oats, sugar, eggs, oil, baking soda… Cindy tapped her foot. Oh, yeah, the recipe! She flipped open the tattered book to her last concoction—Queens Muffins, which the kids had devoured last week in unscrupulous haste. On the next page sat a close up picture of molasses-raisin muffins. Oh boy!

A heart-stopping moment. Did she have molasses?

“Are you even listening?”

Yes! Molasses to the rescue, right next to the Karo syrup. Cindy eyed the half-full black bottle with a practiced eye. It would do. A little brown sugar could make up for any deficiencies. She rolled up her sleeves and dove into baking mode.

“News around town is that John and Megan have split. You know anything about that?”

Cindy’s eye twitched. Three friends had politely informed her of the shocking news. How shocking could it be in a world with a divorce rate running faster than the national debt clock? She tossed a prayer to Heaven. God, help John and Megan. Even more importantly—help their kids.

She preheated the oven, sprayed the muffin tins with olive oil, and poured her friend a glass of iced tea. “You sneer at every man you meet, tell your mom that you’re entering a convent at the next summer solstice, and cater to your kids like they own the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Jan actually frowned. Umbrage incarnate. “Do you have a point you’re trying to make?”

After a you-know-darn-right-well wave, Cindy scooped up gooey spoon-fulls and filled two muffin tins. “Dear-heart, you have a nasty habit of dipping into poisoned wells, and then you wonder why you feel sick.” She popped the trays into the oven.

Time to clean up.

Violins ready? Jan clasped her hands in pitiful desperation. “I just can’t give up on love.”

Cindy wondered if Elon Musk would allow her on board a spaceship heading—anywhere. “For God’s sake. Give love a chance—by all means. But love is a universe apart from happiness and romance.” She wiped her hands on a dishrag. Vigorously.

“Love is scrubbing the bathtub and getting off the grimy rings, making fried egg sandwiches for kids who seriously believe that they’re starving when they have no clue, filling in paperwork with black ink and writing legibly, doing your civic duty even when it means you can’t bring electronics into the courthouse, stopping at red lights, and not racing around tractors on a hill.”

Cindy tossed a drying towel to her friend.

Jan caught it handily.

Patrick jogged into the room. He jogged everywhere. If he wasn’t jogging he was eating or asleep. “Hey, Mom, I’m starving.” A statement of fact. Nothing more.

A frantic screech. Kelly skedaddled into the kitchen, arms circling, ready for takeoff. “Fred’s gone!”

Starvation would have to wait. Duty called. With an authoritative slouch, Patrick nudged his sister in the arm. “Naw. I just put him in his ball to roll around the house, so he won’t spend the whole night on that rickety wheel.”

Jan snorted. “With so much exercise, that rodent will outlive us all.”

Kelly sniffed. “What’s cooking?”

Cindy took a sip of tea and wondered which Fred liked better—the wheel or the ball.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Seventeen, Part I

Miscalculation

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.” ~William Blake

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Sixteen

A Moral Choice

Clare drifted away from the barred cell where Bala sat in slumped resignation. She stopped by a large, steel door and pressed a button.

A voice responded, “Yeah?”

Clare tried to speak but no words came. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I’m ready.”

The door slid open. Clare crossed over the threshold with one backward glance.

Bala sat staring at the floor, his head propped in his hands.

Clare closed her eyes at the reverberating clang as the door slammed shut. A hand gripped her shoulder. Clare spun around.

Cerulean opened his arms, and she stepped into his embrace. Hugging her, he nuzzled her head with his chin. “Even world-weary detectives need a hug now and again.”

Clare rubbed her reddened eyes against his chest, mumbling.

Cerulean frowned. He pulled her back and looked into her eyes. “I’m not familiar with that particular dialect. Here—” He put his arm around her, led her down the corridor, and pointed to a bench. “Tell me what you found out.”

Clare dropped onto the offered seat as Vandi Interventionists bustled about with official business. She spread her arms and then dropped them. “What’s to tell? I’m a complete failure, and I ought to quit before anyone else gets hurt. Lord, I hate my job.”

Cerulean scratched his head. “Self-pity isn’t going to help anyone.” He straightened. “What we need is more information. I tried to bring you the best resource on the planet, but you—”

Clare’s head snapped up. “Justine? That unfeeling piece of bio-mechanical—”

“Whoa! Stop right there, Clare. You’ve taken your animosity about as far as I can stand it. Honestly, I’ve never seen this side of you. Your parents would be horrified. They were two of the most accepting—”

Clare jumped to her feet, her gaze darting around the room and swinging back to Cerulean. Her tone lowered to a hiss. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. They hated robots. They always said that combining human DNA with AI was asking for trouble. It’s immoral—”

Cerulean’s jaw jutted forward as he leaned in close. “You think Justine is immoral—as if she had a choice? Put down your rage for just one second and think, would you? Justine is the product of a laboratory conception. I doubt her biological parents ever knew or cared about what happened to their donations. No one cared about Justine, not as a person. They only cared about her as a source of profit, a point of reference in an argument, or as an excuse to play god. You’re angry at the wrong person, Clare.”

Clare fell back onto the bench and rubbed her face with her hands. Her voice became leaden. “Yeah. Maybe.”

Cerulean shook his head as an Interventionist stepped up and handed him a datapad. He pressed his palm onto it and handed it to Clare who did the same. Cerulean nodded to the guard and steered Clare toward the exit. “There’s more to this than your parents’ aversion to artificial intelligence.”

Clare shrugged as she trudged along at Cerulean’s side. “She reminds me of that voice I used to hear. Her smug perfection, her assumed superiority, it all feels familiar somehow, like she and he…it…are connected.”

Cerulean marched to the door, swung it wide, and gestured for her to hurry along. “Well, they’re not. Justine is a victim as much as Derik, except she’s learning to deal with her problems. Derik is just beginning to discover his.” He waited, holding the door open.

Clare stepped out into the frosty night air. “Derik’s gone over to his Cresta side. I don’t even know him anymore. He nearly throttled me when I told him that Justine is a robot.”

Cerulean stepped along beside her, looked up into the black, star-burnished sky, and sighed. “Frankly, if you don’t quit calling her that, I may throttle you yet.”

Clare looked askance at Cerulean. “Really?”

Cerulean dropped his gaze. “Yes.” He gripped her arm and stared her in the eye. “Look, you’ve got to get it through your head that even our enemies are—”

“If you say ‘our friends,’ I’ll throw up all over your polished boots.”

Cerulean snorted. “I’m not that naïve. What I was going to say—before you so rudely interrupted—was that even enemies are worthy of hope. No one sees the future. You can’t trust everyone, but you can’t decide you know other people’s ultimate fate either.”

“If it came between a human and a Cresta, I’ll choose a human every time.”

“Really? How about if it were an innocent Cresta and a guilty human? Think about it. You decided that Justine was guilty, so you never even gave her a chance to defend herself.”

Clare leaned into Cerulean, shivering, hugging his arm. “I looked through everything we have on her. She killed a lot of beings on more than one occasion. She was a very effective hired gun, and she always walked away unscathed—until she was caught.”

Cerulean stopped, pulled his arm free, placed both hands on her shoulders, and held her steady. He lowered his head so their eyes were level and their gazes interlocked. “Do you know why she was caught?”

Clare shrugged and looked to the side. “Some stupid mistake—”

Cerulean turned her so she could not escape his gaze. “She saved two men’s lives. Against orders and against decades of training, she did the unthinkable; she made a moral choice. At that moment, she chose to stop being a killer.”

With a moaning breath, Clare’s head fell against Cerulean’s chest, and she sobbed.

~~~

The bright, winter sun sparkled on the ivy-covered bungalow, and Clare whistled. A low, thatched roof drooped over twisted grapevines, which in turn wound around the windows. Front beds planted thick with red-berried evergreens offered a colorful contrast, while a snowy path veered toward the back. She sucked in her breath and meandered toward the front entrance of Justine’s house.

A wooden door etched with acorns and oak leaves opened wide. Justine stood on the snowy welcome mat, one hand holding the ornate, iron knob, the other resting on the frame as the cold wind whistled past. She pursed her lips like an irritated teacher just waiting for the next infraction.

Clare halted in her frozen tracks. “Cerulean said you’d be home.”

Justine’s eyebrows rose, apparently surprised that the delinquent before her could speak coherently. “He told me you were coming. I almost left.”

“But you didn’t.”

Justine shrugged. She swept her hand through the doorway. “Cerulean has a way with words.”

Clare sighed through a puff of air. “He sure does.” She stepped in with Justine watching her every move.

The inside of the bungalow shrieked of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Dust had not a particle of business here.

Clare dared not lower her gaze to her snow-caked boots.

Justine looked for her. Her eyebrows appeared frozen in the up position.

With a grimace, Clare unlaced her boots and peeled them off. After stepping into the living room, she let her eyes roll over the intimate space. Clare sucked in her breath. “You rob a museum?”

A crooked smile tugged at the corner of Justine’s mouth. “I’d tell you, but I don’t want to make you angry…again.”

Clare felt magnetically pulled toward a painting of a mother and child, blues and reds vying for the eye’s attention. They both wore golden crowns. Her eyes widened. “Did you—?”

Justine shrugged. “I only copied it. The original was lost long ago, but there were over a million electronic copies left on an Oldearth database called Facebook.”

Clare hugged herself. “I’d love to get a look at that.”

Justine padded over to an easel with a half-finished painting of a little boy with piercing blue eyes. She picked up a wet brush and dabbed it in the paint. “I’d pass it along, but it’s restricted, addictive as opium they say.”

Clare’s eyes bugged, attempting to take in everything at once.

Justine smirked as she waved the paint-laden brush indulgently. “Well, possibly….”

Sidling up to the work in progress, Clare appraised the picture. She wagged her finger. “Cerulean—?”

“No one you know. Just a child I once helped—in a time of need.”

Clare lifted her hands in an attitude of surrender. “Okay, sorry isn’t good enough. I wasn’t exactly reasonable. Can’t say exactly what got into me.”

Justine stroked her chin. Apparently deciding that there was hope for delinquents, after all, she laid her paintbrush aside. She strode across the room to a circular table. A screen rose from the center. She tapped rapidly on a soft pad. “Cerulean told me about your dreams—night visitor—whatever. Must be disorientating. I can’t say I understand, but as they say: ‘to err is human’—forget it.” Her eyes scanned multitudinous files flying across the screen.

Clare strolled to her side and watched Justine’s hand move so rapidly that it seemed to blur. “I thought you considered yourself human.”

“Only on odd days when the moon is full.” Justine straightened and looked Clare in the eye. “What do you need to know?”

Clare leaned over the desk and peered at the file. She pointed to a single line. “I have that one. Bala showed it to me. He said you have other files that he couldn’t get access to. I need to get to those.”

Justine rubbed her chin. “Why?”

Folding her arms, Clare leaned against a chair. “Listen, there’s a secret here that Mrs. Hoggsworth stumbled onto and Bala inadvertently tripped over. She’s dead, and he’s in prison. They both discovered something.”

Justine offered a sad shake of the head at Clare’s apparent return to stupidity. “There’s no evidence to support that. Maybe someone simply hated Mrs. Hoggsworth enough to want her dead.”

“And Bala?”

Justine maintained a steady gaze. “How do you know he’s not guilty?”

Clare bolted forward. “What? You seriously think that Bala would beat his wife, abuse his kids, and trash his own house?”

Justine turned back to the datapad. Her hand blurred again. Up popped 5,764 files on wife battery and child abuse. “Those are the ones from this year alone. Don’t tell me that they’re all innocent.”

Clare pressed her hands to her head as if trying to keep it from exploding. “Holy Saints in—”

A white cat meandered between Clare’s feet and meowed.

Clare stared down, her eyes widening. Without a blink, she glanced up at Justine.

Justine scooped the cat into her arms. “Come here, Theodora. You might get stepped on.”

Clare waved Justine off and stretched out her arms, wiggling her fingers towards the cat imploringly. “Don’t be ridiculous. I love cats. My own is about this size, but she’s black. Just had kittens. Maybe you’d like one.”

Justine passed the cat into Clare’s arms and observed Clare rub her face in the cat’s fur. She grimaced. “That unhygienic.”

“Ah, but they love it.” Clare’s tone dissolved into a purr.

Justine’s eyebrows returned to the up position.

As Clare continued to nuzzle the cat, her voice became soft and coaxing. “You’ve got files no one else has, and Bala’s an innocent man. His family is miserable without him.”

Justine exhaled a long breath. “Oh, all right. I guess even a robot can have a heart.”

~~~

Justine wrapped her fingers around the prison bars and observed Bala with a long, cold stare.

Bala sat upright on his cot and glared back. “So, you’ve come to observe the monkey in the zoo?”

Justine shrugged. “You could say the same about me. Except I don’t need a cage to be locked in.”

With a sigh, Bala slumped against the wall. “Everyone has troubles.”

“Not you. Your prison days are over. Cerulean has cleared your name. You’ll be free to go once we get the final reports in and signed off.”

Bala strode to the bars in the cell door, his eyes narrowing. “Really? How?”

“It was easy. The case crumpled against all the evidence Cerulean brought to bear. He provided ample proof that Ingots had broken into your house and there was not a shred of evidence that you ever harmed your family. Quite the contrary. You’re a model husband and father by all accounts. I congratulate you; your reputation shall shine down through the ages.”

Bala gripped the bars. “Having fun, are we?”

Dropping her gaze, Justine shook her head. “I’d never tease a prisoner.”

Bala flapped his arms as he shuffled back to his cot. “So, how did I end up here? And how do I keep from being sent back the minute somebody starts tossing accusations my way?”

Justine turned at the sound of footsteps. She stepped aside as a guard sauntered down the corridor. After he passed, she returned to Bala. “In your investigation, you reviewed Mrs. Hoggworth’s research of Oldearth records. Most of them have become corrupted or lost, but she somehow learned of my existence and that I have records going back to—”

The guard returned with a prisoner in cuffs. Bala’s and Justine’s eyes followed their passage down the corridor in silence. Bala shook his head. “I could bet a steak sandwich that this all ties in with our illustrious Governor Right.”

Justine paused, her eyes glazed as if searching interior files. “I don’t understand the allusion to food.”

Bala hung his head. “Never mind.”

In response to a buzzing sound, Justine pulled out a datapad and tapped its surface. “Cerulean’s here.” She peered into Bala’s wide eyes. “In any case, I’ll have to do a comparative study of my original records with what’s now reported on the official Newearth data files.”

Rubbing his hands together, Bala perked up. “Sounds good, I’d love to see the results.” His eyes roamed toward the door. “It’s getting late. Any chance that I’ll get out of here before Kendra puts the kids to bed?”

Cerulean stepped to the door, offering a nod to Justine before focusing on Bala. “How’ve you been doing, ol’ man?”

Bala lifted his arms, indicating the small space. “Look around and take a wild guess.”

Cerulean grinned as a guard strode up behind him. “Well, your time is up… in here, I mean. I just sent Kendra word. You’re free to go—”

“Excuse me.” The guard shouldered his way past Cerulean. “You’ll have to sign a release before you walk. I go off in fifteen, so if we could hurry this up….” He pressed his hand against the electronic key. At the sound of the latch unlocking, he swung the door wide.

Bala nodded stiffly. “Certainly, anything to accommodate.” He stepped in line behind the guard, next to Cerulean. They marched down the corridor, shoulder to shoulder.

Justine followed behind, her gaze turned inward, scanning unseen files.

Unfortunately the innocent are always involved in any conflict. Always, everywhere, there is some voice crying from a tower.  ~Graham Greene 

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Fifteen

No Matter How Hard I Try

Clare sidled up behind Derik as he took the last shuffling step to his apartment door. Dirty snow clung to his boots and dripped off his shoulders. He pressed his print-identifier key and pushed the door open with his boot while balancing two bags of groceries in his arms.

Clare frowned as she tapped him from behind. “Hey, where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting for half an hour.”

Derik jerked, peered at Clare, and sniffed. “How was I supposed to know? Did you message me?”

“I tried but your datapad must be broken. Anyway, it was a sudden thought. We need to talk. Can I come in?”

Derik shrugged and stepped aside, letting Clare march ahead. He strode around the counter, placed the bags aside, checked his datapad, frowned, and then opened his freezer. He tossed items in haphazardly.

Clare stared wide-eyed. “You only buy frozen food?”

“I’m not much of a cook, but Taug showed me something—” Derik colored. “Never mind.”

“Taug? The Cresta who wants to kill you, Taug?”

Derik threw the last item on the frozen pile and balled up the shopping bags, flinging them into a hamper under the sink.

“Look, you don’t know anything about him. I do.” He strode to the couch, heaved himself down with a relieved sigh, and gestured to another chair. “Go ahead, sit. Tell me why you’re here.”

Clare eyed Derik darkly. “How very Cresta of you.”

“Huh?”

“The commanding tone, the sharp gesture. Who made you boss?”

Derik tapped his fingertips together. “You’re in my apartment. You said you were going to help me, but in the end, I had to help myself. I know who I am and why I was created. I even know who wants to kill me. I’ve got my life under control, so there’s no great need for your services anymore.” Derik assumed exaggerated, professional politeness. “But I still need to pay you, right? You haven’t done much, but I’ll count your generous intentions.” He sat up and started tapping on his datapad. “Working, see?” He shook his head at Clare’s obvious incompetence.

Clare folded her arms across her chest as she stood in front of Derik, who though seated, could still glare intimidatingly. “You’re too kind. Listen, Derik, I may not have accomplished much, but I did listen to you, and I’ve always been willing to help.”

Derik nodded, his eyes returning to his datapad. “What account do I send it to?”

Clare stomped around the room, her hands clenched on her hips. “Would you stop? I’m not interested in getting paid at the moment. I don’t get compensated until the job is done, and I haven’t finished yet. You still don’t know the truth.”

Derik kept his finger poised over his datapad. “I know I’m thirty-percent Cresta and that Taug and I are friends. I’m helping him understand crossbreeds better, and he’s invited me to live at his lab, though I have other plans. So, I think I know the score pretty well, don’t you?”

“You don’t know everything.” Clare stopped pacing and leaned in. She stared Derik in the eye, one hand braced on the back of the couch. “Justine is an android. She’s a hired gun. I don’t know if she’s been hired to kill you or not, but it’s what she does for a living—if you can call being a robot, living.”

Dropping the datapad, Derik flew off the couch and smashed Clare against the wall, squeezing her neck.

She gasped, wrestled his bulging arms, and kneed him in the groin. They fell together across the coffee table and onto the floor.

Derik rolled on top of Clare and pinned her, choking the breath out of her.

Clare, wide-eyed, smashed Derik’s chest with her fists, attempting to shove him off, kicking and squirming, trying to roll to a more advantageous position, but Derik’s combined weight and strength were too much for her. In desperation, she bit his arm.

Derik slapped her across the face. “Stop it! Just stop.” His breath rose in great huffs as he blinked away tears. Sweat broke across his forehead. “I didn’t mean… I don’t want to hurt you!” His gaze lifted to the ceiling as his voice rose. “But you had no right to say that about her!”

Clare raised her hands protectively, turning her red-splotched face away. “Okay, you made your point. I was rude. Now think about what you’re doing. I’m a detective; you’re assaulting an officer. Twenty years…if you’re lucky.”

Derik rolled to the side, releasing Clare. “I could just as easily kill you, stuff your body in Taug’s incinerator, and no one would ever be the wiser.”

Clare scrambled to her feet, her eyes dark and narrow. “You are not the man I knew.”

Derik climbed onto his knees and rocked back and forth, hugging himself.

His raspy chuckle ascended into hysteria. “Of course I’m not. Neither of us knew who I was. And no one on Newearth knows what I’m becoming. Even Taug. I may surprise him yet.” Derik huffed to his feet and towered over Clare. “You don’t know Justine, either.”

Clare darted a look at the door and edged nearer. “I told you the truth, whether you want to believe me or not. She’s an android created with human DNA.”

Derik froze, his eyes strained and bloodshot. “Justine’s a crossbreed?”

“Something like that.”

“Then she’s perfect for me.” Derik dropped back onto the couch. “You’ve no idea how terrifying this whole thing’s been. Finding out that I’m not fully human, that I’m part Cresta, and just for added entertainment, someone wants to kill me. It’s enough to drive a man crazy.” Derik rubbed his face as if to wash away the horror. “But Justine is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m not totally blind. I wondered… But I didn’t care! It’s like you said, she’s not attracted to my biology but my humanity.”

Clare stood before the door. “I remember. But I also remember telling you that she’s not the only one who cares for you. I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

“Too late.”

“I know. But I’m not your enemy. At least, I wasn’t.” Clare rubbed her sore neck. “Now, I’m not so sure.”

Derik’s eyes flashed as he heaved off the couch again. “What does that mean?”

“If you can fly across a room and nearly strangle someone who’s only trying to help—the Cresta in you might go deeper than thirty-seven percent.”

Derik stepped closer, his eyes bloodshot and swollen. “If you ever insult Justine again or try to hurt her in any way, you’ll find that both the human and the Cresta in me can be very dangerous, indeed. Your work here is over.”

Clare nodded as she yanked open the door and straddled the threshold. “I work for humanity. If you become a threat, we’ll meet again.”

~~~

Cerulean stood against the wall as human workmen dressed in gray, durable clothes carried new furniture into Bala’s refurbished living room.

A mover grunted his question. “Where’d ya want it?”

Bala pointed to Kendra who immediately passed baby Martha to him and scrambled over the rolled-up carpet, directing the workers.

Cerulean leaned in, jiggled Martha’s finger, and grinned idiotically.

The baby wailed.

Bala passed Martha off to his son, who had just ambled innocently into the fray. “Emergency mission, Seth.”

Seth swooped the baby into the air, playing ‘space mission.’

“Keep the landings gentle, son,” Bala advised with a deceptive grin. “Or you’ll see her breakfast again in a distinctly unpleasant form.”

Cerulean grimaced as his eyes followed the two children from the room. “I wish you hadn’t put that image in my head. It’ll be with me all day.”

Bala shrugged. “Sorry. Life with kids. They do the darndest things.”

Cerulean nodded. “True. Amazing how well they recovered from their shock.”

Stroking his marred face, Bala concurred. “Yeah. Resilient. They take after their dad.”

Cerulean’s eyes twinkled as Bala affably gestured two heavy-laden movers toward his wife. “The boss is over there.” Leading Bala to a quiet corner, Cerulean lowered his voice. “Listen, I have a certain amount of influence in the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee. I can make a formal complaint for you. This was clearly an Ingoti incursion on a human domain.”

Bala jumped forward and assisted one of the movers who nearly dragged one end of a large couch. “Steady there. I paid a top price at a half-off sale for these.” After the workmen unceremoniously plopped the couch against the back wall, Bala turned to Cerulean. “Nah. Don’t worry about it. After all, I did solve the Hoggsworth case, sort of. I tracked down the killer’s killer and, for what it’s worth, he’s on his way to Bothmal as we speak.” Bala scratched his chin. “At least, I hope he is.” He patted Cerulean’s arm and squinted. “You lost weight?”

Cerulean opened his mouth, but a baby squalled at the same moment.

Bala waved the answer off. “Silly me. Luxonians don’t lose weight. Light beings and all.” He surveyed Kendra’s frantic efforts to keep the movers’ work undeterred by the three-year-old, who apparently thought that furniture was to be sat on even when it was still in motion. “Listen, I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I just want to put this behind us.” Bala strode over to the child-laden couch and centered it.

A shadow filled the open doorway as an Interventionist stepped over the threshold. The three movers dropped what they were doing, pushed past the Interventionist, and retreated to their vehicle.

Cerulean sighed as he leaned against the wall. “Looks like you’ve got company.”

Bala turned. His mouth dropped open.

Pushing himself forward, Cerulean took charge. “Something I can help you with?”

“Only if you are Bala Impala and want a warrant for your arrest.” The Interventionist held a datapad at arm’s length.

Bala’s eyes grew wide as he tripped over the couch.

Cerulean snatched the datapad and scrolled through. “What’s this about?”

The Interventionist stiffened. “I was just told to bring Mr. Impala in on charges of domestic abuse.” He pointed to Bala. “You Mr. Impala?”

Bala swallowed and nodded. His gaze flicked over to his frozen wife and family. Kendra held a chair in one arm and the baby in the other. No one moved.

The Interventionist deadpanned his recital. “I hereby inform you that you have been charged with wife-beating, child abuse, and home-wrecking. Your human rights are guaranteed by the Inter-Alien Alliance, but anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. Will you come with me peaceably?”

Bala tapped his ears as if they were water-clogged. “I didn’t quite catch that. What—?”

Cerulean lifted his hand. His voice grew incredulous as his gaze scrolled over the datapad. “Someone is accusing Mr. Impala of abusing his family and destroying his own house?”

Bala muttered. “Why would—?”

The Interventionist threw up one protesting hand as he plucked back the datapad. “Don’t ask me. Why does anyone commit crimes?” He slapped the datapad against his palm. “Look, there’re witnesses. Pretty reliable sources, too. You’re going to have to sit in the tank till we get this sorted out. Now, just come along—”

“Bala!” Kendra plowed across the living room like Moses parting the Red Sea and threw her arms around her husband. “No! Not this!”

Bala’s head jerked back on impact. Hugging her and rubbing her back in large circles, he spoke over her shoulder. “You were right, honey. I can’t be tied to safety.” Responding to the Interventionist glare, he pulled away and muttered, “No matter how hard I try.” He faced the Interventionist and raised his limp hands. “I’ll behave myself.” With a nod to Cerulean, he shrugged. “Oh, about that offer—”

The Interventionist clasped manacles around Bala’s wrists and led him to the door. Bala looked back, tears welling in his eyes. “Keep the kids back. I don’t want them to see—”

Cerulean nodded as he put an arm around Kendra’s shivering form. His eyes followed Bala out the door.

~~~

Wearing a thick sweater and weathered jeans with snow-encrusted hiking boots, Cerulean trudged up his porch steps. Snowdrifts appeared flat and gray in the elongated shadows. He turned at the sounds of running steps and a voice calling his name.

Able, wrapped in a heavy coat, huffed into view. “Hey, Cerulean. I was praying I’d find you. I’m on my way to Vandi. There’s been an accident.”

Cerulean retraced his steps and stopped in front of Able, a weary frown shadowing his expression. “What happened?”

“Jim, one of our new members, got hurt, bad. He came to us last fall, insisting that he didn’t feel human anymore. He wanted to get back to nature and rediscover his true identity.”

Cerulean rubbed his forehead. “And did he?”

Able shrugged. “Hard to tell. Seems like a nice guy and all, but he’s different all right. We had some roofing fly off in yesterday’s storm, and against everyone’s advice, he scaled the ladder to fix it. He was just about done when he slipped and fell.”

Cerulean closed his eyes. “Lucky he’s alive.”

Able shook his head, his brows lowered. “Lucky isn’t the word. He fell twenty feet and landed badly. He should be dead or paralyzed.”

“A miracle?”

“Even I don’t believe that. When I saw him scrambling to his feet, I went over and gripped him by the arm.” Able leaned in and whispered, “His skin is cold and hard, like some kind of flexible-metal. He doesn’t wear a bio-suit or anything. He’s not human. At least not fully.”

“Oh, Lord.”

“You took the words right out of my mouth.”

“So what are you going to do? Take him in?”

Able sucked in a deep breath and raised his gaze skyward.

Small flakes of snow swirled around them. “I offered to take him to the hospital, but he got upset. You should’ve seen the terror in his eyes. He’s not well, his skin color was off before he even slipped, and he says he blacks out sometimes. Probably why he fell.”

Cerulean watched the flakes disappearing into the white ground, joined in anonymity, and sighed. “If he’s sick and needs treatment—”

Able rubbed his hands together. “Look, I’m not turning the guy over to authorities. He’s a serious mystery and might even be considered illegal.” He looked Cerulean in the eye. “There are worse things than death, you know.” Able stomped his frozen feet. “Anyway, I’m going to Vandi to pick up some supplies, but I just wanted you to know. I figure if something goes wrong, you’d—”

Cerulean nodded.

Cerulean sniffed and rubbed his frozen nose. “What could possibly go wrong?”

With a twitch of a smile, Able shuffled toward the trail.

“Yeah. Great minds think alike. Thanks, Cerulean.”

Staring at the footprints leading from his porch into a black night, Cerulean shivered.

~~~

Alone in the room, Taug stood before the image of his superior on the holo-screen. With head bowed and tentacles wrapped behind his back, he slouched like a hatchling being chastened by his elder.

The laboratory resided in solemn dimness, while the crescent windows near the top revealed the merest glimmer of dawn.

Mitholie shook a tentacle at Taug via the screen, his head and shoulders resting on the edge of a murky pool. “It’s not just your father’s mistake that’s a risk now. Other complications have come to light. Do you realize what this scandal could entail? Crestas would be ordered to leave the planet. There’d be interplanetary warfare—”

Taug looked up.

“Yes, I said warfare! We wouldn’t leave Newearth peaceably, of course. We’d be forced to take over the whole planet, which would set off a nasty chain reaction. Ingots and Uanyi, even Bhuacs would be furious. You know how many innocent lives would be lost and how expensive the whole process of re-stabilization would be? It would run into the quadrillions.”

Mitholie splashed his tentacle into the pool, sprinkling water across the screen. “Dark waters! I won’t have it. I gave you a direct order, and I have been more than patient while you played with your specimen. But it’s time that this matter was settled!”

Taug nodded. “I understand. Derik—I mean, my specimen— slipped away, but I have—”

Mitholie interrupted. “No more excuses! Your father’s mistake must be disposed of quickly before it’s discovered. Or I’ll be forced to send someone to dispose of my mistake. Do you understand?”

Taug’s head lowered, pressing against his chest.

“Good! I have a meeting with the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee soon. I’d hate to inform them that they have a traitor in their midst.” Mitholie plunged and millions of bubbles surfaced.

The holo-screen blinked into blackness, leaving Taug in the dark.

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible, and suddenly you’re doing the impossible.”– Francis of Assisi

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer II

Photo: https://pixabay.com/photos/man-bridge-lonely-walk-wintry-1156619/

Funny How Life Goes

Who knew that staring at the neighbor’s backyard, watching for signs of life could be considered nosey?

I wondered if the whole concept of “Mind your own business” was carried just a tad bit too far. After all, I hadn’t seen hide or hair of the old man for weeks. He could’ve been dead for all I knew.

Or worse.

He could’ve turned into something… Okay, that image stemmed from last night’s horror flick that my teen son had insisted wasn’t scary. It all depends on if scary meant I freaked out on the couch or simply spent the entire day picturing my eighty-something neighbor as an alien experiment.

“Can I help you?”

Oh, great. The son. He caught me red-handed…actually wide-eyed. I turned from the fence amazed that he had snuck up so close. Gravel roads usually gave people away. And where were my lousy dogs? I gazed around. Sure enough. Napping in the sun…probably didn’t even lift their heads as this veritable stranger strolled up the driveway.

I faced the fifty-something gentleman and smiled brightly, frantically thinking up a good lie. Unfortunately, my mouth tends to leave the station before my brain is finished giving instructions.

“I just wanted to see if Mr. Jacob is still alive.”

A low whistle.

Well, I hit the prize impression with that one. “I mean…I haven’t seen him for a while, and he’s been on my mind.”

“He’s fine.” The man’s eyes stared at me as if an interrogation room was being contemplated. Dang, but he’d have the whole alien experiment thing outta me before I could get properly tied to the chair.

So what now? The guy is standing between me and my back door. I could skirt around him, pretending that I’m just ambling toward my garden to pick— Heck it’s full of seedlings too young to touch and with my daughter’s ruthless war on weeds, there wasn’t even a stupid dandelion to hide behind.

He clasped his hands and continued to stare as if he wanted to talk. Probably not about aliens.

The only decent thing to do was stand there and take it. Yes. I’ve been nosy. I’d imagined gosh-awful possibilities all day until I just had to sneak over and see if poor Mr. Jacob could still walk…or crawl…around his place. And no, I wouldn’t appreciate it if someone else was watching me with an overloaded imagination ignited by horror movie scenes.

Thoroughly ashamed was I.

He cleared his throat. Always a good sign. It meant he’d like to tell me off but was holding himself back.

“Dad’s been off his feed for weeks. My sister is spent taking care of her daughter who broke her leg and has three little ones to corral. I’ve got to go out of town for the weekend, and I was just wondering if you’d keep an eye on him for a couple of days.”

My brain couldn’t back up fast enough. For a moment, I actually believe I lost the power of speech. Which is darn unusual for me. “Uh…well…sure…I’d…be happy…to.”

“Pa thinks he can manage everything himself. But you know, he watched some scary movie last night and thought you were coming to get him for some kind of alien abduction thing.” The guy actually laughed.

At me!

I could’ve wept in relief.

“Oh, how silly!” I grinned good-naturedly. After all, I am a decent human being. From planet Earth no less. Heck, I now imagined baking this man the nicest pie in creation—after I fed his dad a delicious non-alien dinner.

Funny how life goes. When I sopped by over that first evening, Mr. Jacob backed up against the wall, apparently expecting my pie cutter to slice through more than crust, but when I unveiled the cherry pie, all was well.

Now I go to the fence nearly every day and stare until Mr. Jacob or his son comes out to chat. Occasionally I call ahead. But usually, they seem to just feel my presence. We meet up and talk. I might bring a pie. The son might bring a couple of beers. Mr. Jacob brings his smile.

And so far…no aliens.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz