The Human Experience
Bala ran around the outdoor Waukee middle-school track with his skinny arms bent at the elbows, moving like the pistons of an Oldearth engine. His breath floated into the frozen air and wafted away.
Clare leaned against the woven metal fence while the sky darkened. An ache built behind her eyes. Hugging her winter coat around her slender waist did little to diminish the cold that seeped into her shaking bones. She was frozen to the core, and no coat in the world could warm her.
Bala turned aside at the entrance and swung his pounding footsteps in her direction. Panting, he heaved up next to her and bent over in an attempt to regain his exhausted breath. “What’cha doing here? I thought we’d meet at the Nook for something sweet and hot.”
Clare forced a grin. “Always thinking about food, aren’t you?”
Bala puffed smokestacks in her direction and wobbled a skinny arm. “If you were born with this metabolism, you’d be obsessed with keeping body and soul together too, you know.”
Clare threw an arm around his heaving shoulder, not so much to give him strength as to steal a bit of the steam pouring off his body. “Come on, oh-buddy-of-mine. We’ve got work to do. I stashed my larder with enough goodies to last you through another ice age.”
Bala loped along at her side, wiping a wisp of curly hair out of his eyes. “Oh great. Another ice age. You have a dark mind, lady.”
Clare shoved her frozen hands into huge, fluffy pockets, and they strode along the snowy sidewalk in silence. After a bit, she frowned and looked askance at Bala. “What’re you doing out here at the track, anyway?”
Bala shrugged one lopsided shoulder. “Working off a little steam.”
“Ha, ha!” Clare pummeled his left side down another notch. “So, tell me. How are we going to get Derik out of Governor Right’s prison and Justine out of Taug’s morgue?”
Bala glanced up at the first star twinkling in the sky and pointed. “Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish, I wish tonight.”
Clare stopped and joined in. “What’d you wish for?”
Bala hurried down the lonely sidewalk. “Can’t tell. It’d break the… whatchamacallit.”
Eyebrows rising, Clare laughed and bellowed frozen air in front of her face. “You’re superstitious?”
“Not at all. I just don’t want to lose my wish.”
Bala sighed and stopped. He tipped his head back and stared wide-eyed into the blue and lavender sky. “I believe in more than the eye can see.”
With easy dismissal, Clare waved him on. “So does everyone, I imagine. After all, we can’t see everything. There’s a lot we haven’t explored and don’t know.”
Bala shook his head. “Naw. That’s not what I mean.” He hurried across a silent street and looked over his shoulder. “I hope you left a light on. My shins are still healing.”
Twinkling windows illuminated the rural neighborhood. Clare huffed forward. “It’s automated, idiot. Like your house should be. First wrong tip-toe around my place and lights and alarms go off.”
Bala wrapped his quickly chilling arms around his lanky body and jogged ahead. “I got kids. Tip-toes are a security nightmare.”
Once ensconced in Clare’s largest and comfiest chair with a cup of hot cocoa in one hand and a plate of cookies in the other, Bala leaned back and grinned. “You do love me.”
Clare sat cross-legged on the couch with a mug of steaming tea. “What are we going to do? I’ve been formally ordered to stay out of all political messes and concentrate on cases with legitimate humans.”
“The boss knows about Derik?”
“Someone whispered enough in his ear to scare him witless. He told me to drop Derik’s case and forget I ever heard of Mrs. Hoggsworth.”
Bala whistled under his breath. “But we’ll need Justine’s help to free Derik, and she’s a legitimate human, sort of. And after all, an unfriendly alien is holding her by force.”
Clare shook her head. “I doubt she could be held by force… unless she thought she’d save Derik by offering herself up.”
A swarm of kittens clawed their way up the side of Bala’s chair. One nosed the plate of cookies near Bala’s hand.
Bala sipped his cocoa. “Governor Right can’t afford to leave evidence around that might bite her in the back someday.” He chomped a huge bite out of his cookie.
Clare wrapped her fingers around her mug and stared at the rising steam. “And Taug’s probably in hot water with the Crestar leadership. They hate looking like the bad guys. The veneer is everything to them.”
“I disagree. Science is their god. They’d sell their offspring for a crack at new technology. But given the Inter-Alien Alliance agreement, they’re caught between science and diplomacy. The question is: how do we convince Taug that he can have both?”
“We want to do that?”
“Sure, on condition he gives Justine her liberty.”
Clare’s eyebrows scrunched in indignation. “Taug is a lying, murderous cheat who’ll use anyone and everyone to further his own ends. And you want to offer him a way out?”
Bala leaned back and took another glorious sip of cocoa. “I said offer. I didn’t say deliver.”
All the snow had melted into rivulets of a late winter thaw. The sun shone mildly warmer, though it made no promises. The trees seemed to think that they had outlasted the worst of the season, and their branches thickened, the tips showing the tiniest swellings, hinting at future hopes.
Pedestrians plodded through the melting icy muck while those on autoskimmers raced above the mess, undaunted by nature’s challenges. Bala marched across the street and held the door of the nondescript office building open for Clare, who glanced around nervously.
When they reached the desired floor, Bala stood back and let Clare take the lead, though he covered her with his well-aimed Dustbuster. They entered Taug’s laboratory. Finding it empty, they both sighed.
Clare appeared to be dancing backward as she turned about the immaculate, white-walled room. Bala edged nearer the furthest glass wall, his gaze sweeping right and left in wide arcs. Finally, Clare unclenched her fingers around her own Dustbuster and let out a long breath. “I guess he isn’t here.” She shook her head. “Though from everything I gather, he isn’t anywhere else. I wonder—”
A sudden splash and a quick flash of tentacles swirling through the water forced a squeak from Bala. Clare clamped her hand over his, stopping him from blasting the wall to oblivion and drowning them in Crestonian fluids in the process.
Taug’s eyes peered at them through the murky green swirl.
Clare frowned at his sudden smile. It almost looked like he was glad to see them. He couldn’t be…could he?
Taug flashed out of sight.
Bala and Clare waited, their Dustbusters ready.
In a surprisingly short time, Taug’s bio-suit encased body waddled around the curved wall and into the central laboratory.
Bala was busy inspecting every container and had just lifted the lid on the dissecting tube. He paled and clutched his stomach. Wagging a shaky finger, Bala croaked. “What the—Who the heck do you have in there?”
Taug grinned mischievously. “No one you know.”
Bala raked his throat clear. “How do I know?”
The familiar voice made Bala swing around.
Justine stepped forward, wringing her wet hair in a long towel. “I would’ve killed him if it was human—or any sentient being—for that matter.” She tossed a sinister smile at Taug.
Taug reflected the sentiment and opened his tentacles as if to embrace his long-lost family. “Come, let’s make the most of this opportunity. It’s not often that we gather without the express intention of killing one another.” He gestured to an alcove off to the side populated with padded chairs, a sofa, and a couple of ornate tables.
Bala’s eyebrows rose. “I had no idea that Crestas had a taste for comfortable furnishings.”
Taug lumbered ahead and plopped down with a sigh on a cushy sofa. “After living in water, you don’t think we’d prefer your hard, unrelenting wood and steel? No, there is much you do not understand about us. We are not as barbaric as you think. Your prejudice blinds you to our better qualities.”
Clare huffed. “Honestly, it’s your war crimes that blind me. But let’s not get off-topic.” She folded her arms across her chest.
Bala leaned against one of the empty chairs, his eyes roving over to Justine, who seated herself across from Taug as if they were having an intimate moment together. Bala shook his head. “Okay, Justine, what’s going on? You’ve become best buddies with your lover’s would-be killer?”
Justine combed out strands of her wet hair with her long, slender fingers. “You do rush to rash judgments, don’t you?”
Clare opened her hands beseechingly. “We came to rescue you!”
Justine flicked her hair over her shoulder and glanced at Taug before turning her full gaze on Clare. “Silly of you. I hardly need to be rescued. Thanks, anyway.” Justine rose, towered over Clare a moment, then moved past her and strolled around the small space. “Remember in my apartment, when you apologized for being a judgmental idiot?”
Clare stiffened, only her eyes glowering.
“And you simpered all over my cat?”
As she flushed, Clare lowered her gaze.
Justine stopped in front of Clare and held up her hand to forestall any possible interruption. “I knew then that I had misjudged you.” Justine stepped into Clare’s personal space. “I couldn’t embrace my human DNA, but I couldn’t ignore it either.” She tapped Clare’s shoulder. “When you humbled yourself before me, you brought me the first real joy I’ve ever felt.”
Clare turned away. “Happy to be of service.” Her irony bounced off Justine like water off Taug’s glass wall.
Justine’s eyed followed Clare’s pacing form. “It’s all about choice, you see. My creator never gave me an option. I was caught between worlds. No human could really love an android, and technology has no heart to offer.”
Bala slapped the back of the chair, startling Taug. “That’s not true! Derik loves you. He offered his life to save you.”
Justine shook her head. “Merely sentiment. He loves the idea of me.”
Taug’s eyes ping-ponged back and forth between the speakers.
Bala clapped his hands together in impotent fury. “If sacrificing yourself for another isn’t love, then I don’t know what is.”
“Sharing yourself completely. Something I can never truly do.”
Clare lifted her hands in apparent surrender. “I’m lost. How did I help?”
“You humbled yourself. You even hugged my cat!”
Clare glared at Justine. “Okay, fine. Fairtrade. You come over and hug my cat sometimes, and we’ll be even. You’ll be as humble as me.”
Taug grunted at Clare, a tentacle waving in admonishment. “You’re a stupid woman.” He heaved himself to his feet. “Justine is humble enough.” He glanced at Justine. “She was never a child and can never have children. A vital part of the human experience—lost to her.”
Justine smirked. “But not so vital.” She glared at Clare. “I don’t need to be a child, a mother, or even in love to experience humanity. You humbled yourself for a cat.” She turned on her heel. “I was never so glad to be an android in all my life.”
Bala stood back and gripped his Dustbuster as he glared at Justine. “So you’ve sided with Taug—against us?”
Justine laughed as she pounded to the doorway and turned on the threshold. “I’m not against you. Just not one of you. I don’t need you anymore. Taug’s helped me understand that my uniqueness is my greatest asset. He’s sent a message to his superior; I’ll be returning with him.”
Clare’s eyes widened. “To Crestar? You’re crazy. They’ll dissect you!”
Bala waved his Dustbuster at Taug. “Right after they kill him.”
Taug chuckled. “They won’t kill a hero bringing home their salvation.”
“Emotion without reason lets people walk all over you; reason without emotion is a mask for cruelty.” ~
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