You Know It’s Real

Patrick O’Donnell had been married for eighteen years, and only today did he realize that he loved his wife.

Emily had insisted on an October wedding, though he knew that was ridiculous. Couldn’t trust the weather in October any better than a used car on the highway. Still, rather than listen to her complain every anniversary about how she wished she had gotten to pick the date, he had acquiesced.

He sat in their bedroom and rubbed his stubbly chin. At fifty-two he was a relatively strong and good-looking guy. Any woman would be lucky to have him, even now. He certainly got inquiring looks when he was away from home. He’d made a habit of placing his left hand, thus his “owners tag,” in plain sight so whomever he was interviewing would get the hint, and there’d be no awkward moments. Flattered by the shine in a woman’s eyes, he enjoyed knowing that he still attracted women, but he rarely let it go for long before he’d make some obvious comment about his wife and kids, clarifying his position.

Only once did he joke with Em about his magnetic power with women. She didn’t see the humor. She took it like a challenge. The next time they went out, she flirted with every guy in the room, and every time they grinned at her, she sent a beaming smile his way.

He’d come to marriage late in life, at thirty-four his mom had all but given up hope for him. He didn’t date much since the whole asking out and wading through the get-to-know-you process disturbed him.

Emily was a schoolteacher seven years his junior when they met. He was a reporter for the city paper. When he did a piece about their accelerated school program, she was one of the people he interviewed. In fact, he interviewed her three times before he asked her out.

It wasn’t long before he asked her to marry him.

After a church wedding, one of the few times he went to church, he traveled for the paper, wrote articles, took a series of editing positions, did freelance work, studied photography, took yearly wilderness trips with the guys, even did a stint in Guatemala for six weeks one summer.

Em did much the same, living life to the fullest.

Patrick rose from the edge of the bed and faced the open French doors blowing in a gentle breeze. The last day of September. Tomorrow was October first and their eighteenth anniversary. But for the first time in their married life, Emily wouldn’t care.

The process had started so slowly that neither of them thought that anything was wrong. Just an occasional headache. Then the slight trembling. When she couldn’t remember how to get to the grocery store, she had laughed it away. “Too much on my mind, what with violence on the rise, and three kids failing my class. Lucky I can remember my name!”

It seemed mildly amusing, until it wasn’t.

Footsteps padded near. Bare feet by the sound of it. Patrick shook his head. His kids befuddled him. Clare was the more logical of the two, but Tige was easier to handle. Clare had a knack for misunderstanding him while Tige didn’t seem to care. As long as he could see his friends and play games on a regular basis, he’d do whatever his parents asked. A fair trade, he’d say. But Clare classified and parsed everything. Big jobs required big rewards. He asked as little as possible from her.

“Hey, dad?” Tall and lanky at sixteen, Tige stood in the doorway in his baggy black sweatpants and long-sleeved shirt, a set he used as his nightclothes for the last year.

Patrick returned his gaze to the outdoors. The sun had risen but with the heavy mist, a dreary gray hung over the land. He could barely make out the neighbor’s house just beyond the two maple trees.

“Yeah?”

Tige stepped in and stopped just behind Patrick’s right elbow. “Just thinking that mom’d like it if we did something tomorrow. Maybe we could bring her flowers. There’re a few blooms left on the Rose of Sharon.”

A choking ache rose from the depth of his being and flooded Patrick’s whole body. The porch railing blurred.

A higher voice rose from behind. Clare, petite with long blond hair and bright blue eyes, so much like her mother, took charge. “Those’ll wilt before we get there. The cafeteria lady owns a shop that sells decorative arrangements, fake ones that won’t fade. I could get some after school since it’s Friday, and I don’t have to get my school work done in a hurry.”

Annoyance squeezed Patrick’s heart, but he couldn’t say anything. She was right. Fresh flowers, even colorful leaves, would fade and look terrible in a few days. But still—

“Mom hates fake stuff, Clare. We aren’t doing this to save you trouble. We’re doing what mom loved best.”

A tear meandered down Patrick’s cheek. He knew who else loved Emily.

Her voice high and strained, Clare ground her point into their hearts. “Mom won’t know the difference.”

Patrick turned around. “We will.” He clasped his son’s shoulder. “Pick a few just before we leave in the morning. It won’t matter how they look in a week.”

Tige nodded and padded out the door.

Clare’s mouth trembled. “Why not get something that lasts? It’ll look better when she wakes up—”

Patrick held out his arms. No words could explain.

Clare flung herself into her dad’s embrace and held on for dear life.

After the room was clear, the fog had lifted, and the clock insisted that he get ready for work, Patrick closed the French doors.

Love hurts like hell, he realized. He wiped his eyes and faced the day. Maybe that’s when you know it’s real.

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

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

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/view-window-curtain-sunset-hope-3513705/

Not Sad

—Newearth—

Riko couldn’t believe his eyes. His nostrils or his ears either, for that matter. He stared at the gray-walled room filled with bassinets, child-sized beds, and three full-sized beds and promptly slipped into shock.

The cacophony of sounds smashed against his ears like an out of tune orchestra that has no intention of ever playing the same composition—each rising burst out-screaming, crying, whimpering, or wailing every other.

The stink gagged him. He pressed his hand to his nostrils and swallowed back bile. This is literally a shitty situation.

He tried to count the babies kicking their arms and legs, the tiny pale faces peering over the edge of their bed rails, and the little bodies running in circles in the center of the room, but dizziness engulfed him.

One teenager stood in the center of the room while the little ones ran circles around him gleefully. He waved his hand like a conductor and grinned, apparently unconcerned that madness reigned.

A middle-aged woman bustled forward, her hands extended. “You must be Riko!”

Nodding, unable to take his eyes off the insane circus, Riko merely assented to the truth of the statement.

“I’m Marge. Shwen told me all about you. I’m so glad you’ve come.”

Dragging his attention off the children, Riko peered at the woman. “Shwen?”

“She’s a Bhuaci healer. One of the best, if reports are true. Word of you met her ears, and she passed the information to me.”

With a shiver, Riko managed to focus on Marge. “I don’t understand. Why am I here?”

A screaming boy yanked his attention across the room. A short, buxom woman hurried over and swooped the distraught child into her arms, rocking him with all the force of a turbo engine at high speed.

Marge tapped Riko’s arm. “Come with me, and we can talk privately.”

Struggling against rising nausea, Riko marched after the matronly figure.

They exited the one-story building through a red back doorway and entered a lovely garden surrounded by multicolored rose bushes, flowering trees, and a tall, woven fence.

Marge led the way to a wooden bench and sat, heaving a relieved sigh. “Lord, have mercy. This is the first time I’ve been able to rest today.” A gentle, depreciating smile wavered on her lips. “I’m really too old to be a mother to such a brood, but someone has to love them.”

Riko shook his head. “Where do they come from?”

Marge shrugged. “Everywhere. And nowhere. At least no one will admit to their existence. Some are Ingot rejects. Others were lost in transport and forgotten.”

“They’re all Ingots then?”

“Not all, but most, yes. A few humans among the lot.”

“I didn’t see any techno-armor—”

“Most never had the implants, or those that did, didn’t adjust well. In any case, we have them now, and we’re trying to manage as best we can without such barbaric advancements.”

Despite the ironic humor, weary depression settled over Riko. “Why isn’t the Inter-Alien Alliance helping you?”

Leaning back, resting her hands in her lap, Marge looked into the sky and snorted. “No one wants them. The Inter-Alien Alliance has enough to manage without dealing with unwanted babies.” She shrugged.

Apprehension needled Riko. “But you asked me to come today—?”

Taking a deep breath, Marge sat up and slapped her hands on her thighs. “Yes. I have one Ingot teen that needs special assistance. Clearly, he is too old to stay here, but he’s not ready to move on his own.” She stood and started to stroll the parameter of the enclosed garden. “I found a good woman who is willing to take him in, provided that he finds gainful employment. She’s struggling to raise her own three after her husband was killed in a transport accident.”

Riko fell in step beside Marge and thought back to the room with the teen standing in the center. “You mean the boy—”

“His name is Wendell. We don’t know much about him, where he has been, or how he found us. He just showed up at the door one day looking lost and confused.” Marge stopped and laid her hand on Riko’s arm as if to emphasize her point. “But he never looked or acted pitifully. He has complied with everything we’ve asked. He was the one who started the children running in circles around him every day.”

Riko reared back. “Does that help?”

“Yes, marvelously! They are so much calmer after they’ve had a good run. I bring them out here sometimes but only in small groups, or they’d tear this place to shreds. They are still a bit out of control.” She sighed and reconvened her stroll.

Riko stroked his chin, pondering the question he knew was coming. How could he say yes? But more importantly, how could he say no? The datapad on his wrist chimed, alerting him to the lateness of the hour. He stopped. “Can we go back in?”

Marge nodded, solemn, and silent.

This time the noise and smell didn’t shock him as it had at first. Either it wasn’t as bad as he had imagined, or he was getting used to it. He hoped he wasn’t getting used to it.

Wendell stood leaning over one of the beds. He covered and uncovered parts of his face in a rhythmic pattern.

Perplexed, Riko strode closer.

The child in the bed grinned as she imitated Wendell’s every move. When he covered his eyes, she covered hers, at least partially. One eye peeked out, watching for the next step. When he covered his nose, she did the same, giggling.

A lump formed in Riko’s throat. He stepped up and laid his hand on Wendell’s shoulder. “I hear that you’re looking for a job.”

After patting the little girl’s head, Wendell turned his attention to Riko. “Need work for the new mom.” He smiled, innocence incarnate.

With an inward groan, Riko thrust his hand out. “I happen to be looking for a boy to help me at the café.”

Wendell stared at Riko’s outstretched hand and tilted his head, perplexed.

Sighing, Riko grabbed Wendell’s hand and shook it. “It’s a human expression, a way of sealing a deal. You’ll work with me at the Breakfastnook, starting tomorrow. That way your new mom can rest easy, and you can get out of this madhouse.”

“Madhouse?” Wendell glanced around. “Not mad. Only sad.”

For the first time since his mother died, Riko blinked back tears. “Yeah, well, you’ll come early, okay? Marge will give you directions. It’s not far.”

Wendell grinned. “I go there. Tomorrow. Work early. Come here. Run kids. Not sad.”

Swallowing the urge to sob like one of the babies, Riko nodded and cleared his throat. “A good plan.” He turned and hustled to Marge’s side as she placed a baby in a high chair with a plastic bowl filled with bright colored cereal.

“I expect him bright and early in the morning.”

Peering through exhausted eyes, Marge smiled. “Thank you.”

Riko turned and fled out the doorway.

Once safely back at the café, Riko threw himself into the bustling dinner crowd as they ate and chattered, making a pleasant raucous.

He thought back to the orphanage. Funny, but he couldn’t recall the noise or the stink. Only the smiles. Not sad at all.

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

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

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/europe-globe-ter-terrestrial-globe-2262154/

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

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

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

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

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

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

Profitable Aspects of Writing —Little Cash Involved

The most profitable aspect of writing has little to do with money. When I began my writing journey, I believed I might make enough profit to buy…to repair…to solve… To fill in some blank in my life. Yet, during the ten years I’ve been writing and publishing novels, non-fiction inspirational reflections, poems, and short stories, I’ve discovered the real blanks that writing filled. Very little cash involved.

The first blank would have to be Humility. Gosh, but it was a shock to discover that my initial efforts weren’t as good as I thought. That my skills weren’t up to par. That while some readers forgave my bumbling efforts and wrote nice reviews, others tossed hand grenade truths that nearly shattered my calm disposition. I had to accept a whole new level of humility or throw away my pen.

Learning New Skills hustled for second position, ramming against every wish list I ever made. I just wanted to WRITE. Not being a total fool, I planned to leave editing, proofreading, design, and publishing to the experts.

Well, that sounded good in theory.

Unfortunately, the logic of my newfound humility meant that I didn’t have the cash flow to ensure my deepest desires. In order to get out of the humility hole, I had to learn a lot about editing—which is a far cry from proofreading, let me tell you, Buddy! Apparently, it matters if my reader gets so bewildered in the storyline that they don’t know what year it is or what planet they’re on. And that irritating English Grammar thing. I’ve had to tackle spelling like the monster it is and get a good hold. And figure out what’s going on with “ing” words.

Grammarly should be up for Literary Guardian Angel of the Year Award. Just saying…

I also had to wrangle design elements and learn the tricks and tribulations of publishing online. I did pay experts. Those poor souls not only helped me to shape better books, but they taught me much-needed skills so I can now fly solo—on occasion.

My third blank waylaid me in a dark alley and turned out to be a great friend. Once I stopped screaming at it.

Freedom.

Being my own editor, designer, and publisher offered me the freedom to see my work in a whole new light. Bearing responsibility and taking the consequences for my actions brought illumination to the dark corners of the writing/publishing universe.

It wasn’t merely the fact that I didn’t have a publisher breathing down my neck telling me how to get the job done or pointing to a set of guidelines, but I gained the reality of “ownership.” Did I make mistakes? Like a fish in water. Tons and kabillions of them. It’s incredibly fun to play with metaphors and spell things wrong on purpose. A snide revenge thing? Maybe. But I also paid the price for my mistakes—thus I dropped all interest in making the same mistake twice.

Part of human genius is our ability to move the camera into the corners. To switch off the lights and read by the light of the moon. To get down to hamster level and discover what’s been hiding under the refrigerator for the last three months.

I can do things differently. Not only can I, but I’d better. I develop as I grow. The world alters. Convolutions and revolutions transform me as they transform cultures and Wal-Mart isles. So the ability to not only learn humility and new skills but to hone my freedom in the service of a greater good—to tell an honest story or reflect on my latest homeschool mishap—means that I have filled in a lot of blanks.

The biggest blank is where my life would’ve been without writing. Not enough money in the world to fill that blank.

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

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

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/notes-write-fountain-pen-filler-3819574/

Hope for the Human Race

Herman perched his glasses on his nose, stared at the bottle of bathroom cleaner with the foamy suds on the label, and swerved his gaze to his beloved dog—the one giving him the mopey What-did-I-Do-To-Deserve-This? look—and realized his mistake.

It wasn’t the first time.

The week before, he had brushed his teeth with Icy-Hot, and the week before that he had poured half a bottle of liquid detergent down the drain thinking he was unclogging the sink. The fact that the dishes had smelled “springtime fresh” hadn’t helped in the least. The sink remained clogged until the plumber sent his snake coil five miles through underground terrain.

Each morning, when the news informed him that a new plague or disasters unlimited loomed, he figured that this was as good a time as any to make out a will. Dying was all too easy. It was living that made each day a challenge.

And so, when he met Chuck, he tried not to act surprised. Chuck looked perfect. He acted perfect. Up until the moment he froze in place. That wasn’t so perfect. Not the way he did it. Stock still. His hand caught in mid-air, holding the test tube just so. His eyes staring, blank, but as wide and as blue as ever.

After the last major world alteration—pandemic, economic crisis, collective emotional meltdown—whatever you want to call it, The University had decided that “State of the Art Androids” would assist human teachers in their laboratory work. No matter if the world was going to hell-in-a-hand-basket, students still needed the opportunity to practice medical procedures, carry out chemical experiments, and do a thousand things that simply could not be managed from home.

Reasonable? Of course.

Considering his record of late, Herman wasn’t surprised when his Department Head informed him that a new assistant, Chuck, would aide him as he maneuvered the entire scientific student body through the semester. To stiffen his spine, Herman reminded himself that his dog had recovered nicely and water ran through his sink lickity-split these days, with a refreshing scent to boot.

He spent the entire weekend before Chuck’s arrival assuring himself that an assistant meant more free time to do his own research. A positive step in the right direction. An honor! And NO risk.

When autumn rolled around and the school doors finally creaked open, Chuck calculated formulas, measured chemicals, laid out lab materials, and never broke anything. Never got mixed up. Never forgot which student he was dealing with or which experiment they were doing. Though his pronunciation did need a little work. Good thing scientists rarely giggle.

But last Wednesday, Chuck had a few internal issues, not gastric of course, just something a little off. He bumped Herman twice as they crossed paths in the lab, and he actually scowled at Lacy, the brightest student in the whole school, who had the unfortunate luck to break her arm. Chuck didn’t slow down for bumbling humans and didn’t smile at imperfections.

Lacy’s attempt at humor as she held up her sling-shod arm collided with Chuck’s long cold stare.

Herman glanced at Lacy; tears filled her eyes.

He had suspected for months that her heart had been beating a little faster whenever Chuck was in the room…but this kind of workplace awkwardness he had never imagined. Made soaping the dog with the wrong kind of suds seem almost funny.

What to do? It wasn’t like he could call Herman out for his icy demeanor, his lack of empathy, his calculated perfection.

But on Friday, Chuck stalled. Positively and undeniably froze in place.

Herman called the proper authorities. Nodded sympathetically when the Head of the Department broke down sobbing. Chuck had been a prototype. “A first, damn it! But not the last!” The Head Man had lifted his chin and thrown a determined glare directly at Lacy. As if her human indelicacy had pushed Chuck’s tightly wound synaptic system over the proverbial bridge.

After two men with a squeaky dolly wheeled Chuck away, Herman shrugged and considered the lab. Test tubes, beakers, Bunsen burners, metal trays, and laptops—various tools of the trade—and one lonely shrub decorated the sterile white room.

A crash and Herman knew in his heart-of-hearts that there was one less test tube.

He blinked at Lacy’s horrified face. A tear slid down her face.

He padded softly to her side and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.

She leaned in and sighed. “I can’t help it. I make mistakes.”

For the first time in months, Herman felt hope for the human race.

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

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

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

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/sun-man-sunset-sky-landscapes-3477393/

With or Without the Pits

Eugene closed the oven door and faced his wife. “I hope I got all the pits out, or the boys will break their teeth on my cherry tarts.”

Samantha didn’t smile.

It was pouring rain and though the weather forecaster hadn’t suggested building an ark, her longed-for vacation at the lake seemed like a fading vision. A swampy muck of floodwaters hardly encouraged suntan-by-the-shore-eat-drink-and-dance-dreams.

With his hands on her shoulders, Eugene tried for a half-caress-half-shake. “I was only kidding. No deep metaphor of the state of the universe.”

Like a rusty robot, Samantha rotated to the French doors off the kitchen. The hanging plants sparkled with raindrops while a pair of red slippers she’d left by her favorite chair appeared as droopy as her spirits. “Summer will end, and I’ll be as exhausted as ever.”

Eugene didn’t know what to say. Cherry tarts seemed inconsequential. Like war humor—it just wouldn’t work as planned. Some things weren’t funny.

Devon, their six-foot-three and two hundred pound son, loomed into the room. His shadow entered first. He stopped, glanced from one parent to the next, and then shuffled his feet—indecision warring with better judgment. “Hey, just to let you know, I got the job. They want me to start next week. So—”

Though his heart soared with pride, Eugene’s stomach plummeted. Not for a minute could he glance at his wife and deal with her emotional mash-up. No, he’d go it alone. He threw his arms wide and embarrassed the hell out of his eldest with the tightest bear hug he’d given since Devon fell out of the treehouse at four and managed to walk away unscathed.

Doing a darn good impression of a startled linebacker with no ball in sight, Devon let himself be hugged. Then he hugged back.

Samantha stayed on the sidelines. Silent. Stoic. It took a full two and a half minutes before her composure crumbled, and she charged into the hug. Her muffled, “I can’t believe you’ll be leaving us…I’m so proud, but I can’t believe…” reverberated against the men’s You-Know-What-I-Mean eye lock.

Eugene pulled back and sniffed, fear reverberating through his body. “The tarts!” A quick U-turn.

Samantha tossed him the oven mitts.

Their youngest son, Kris sauntered in with the grace of a gangling teen that has outgrown every bit of his summer clothing. “Hey! You hear about Devon?” His gaze shifted from his mom to his brother. “I’ll get your room, right. It’s bigger than mine and besides, you can sleep on the couch if you ever come to visit.”

Samantha slapped her little boy’s arm and pooh-pooed the very idea. “Wait till he’s out of the house before any formal take over.” She leaned in and stage-whispered. “I have a whole house re-do that’ll cost a fortune, and I don’t want your dad to suffer cardiac arrest before I get a good contractor set up.”

Eugene waved a succulent, cherry popover before his wife’s face. “No goodies until you behave.”

Lightning flashed and thunder rolled over the celestial landscape.

Not to be held back by the threat of burned fingers or tongue, Kris attacked the hot cookie tray with the gusto of a starved rhinoceros.

Devon lowered his gaze.

Samantha accepted her husband’s offering and held it out to her eldest. “You first, Sweetie. The man of the hour.”

Eugene wrapped his arm around his wife and together they watched their sons partake of his latest culinary delight. He tipped his head, touching hers. “So the lake is out—but a cave tour would be pretty cool. Literally and figuratively.”

Samantha shrugged, her gaze wandering the room and out the door. Soothing drops fell in a steady rhythm while the fields and trees glowed, revitalized. “After we see Devon off…No hurry.”

While Eugene scrubbed the cookie trays, his wife chatted on the phone, spreading good news along the family gossip chain. A send-off party with matching luggage was in the works.

Once he slid the trays into place, Eugene eyed the last popover. He hadn’t even had one yet. He refilled his coffee cup, pulled out a chair, and plunked down for a well-earned respite. He took a bite. Wow! Better than he realized. He chewed and savored, and finally licked the last crumbs from his fingers. Not one pit.

With a sigh of contentment, he returned to the sink, washed his cup, and reset the coffee machine. He poured the spent grounds into the compost container and froze. There was Devon’s napkin with the red insignia of his new company—his mom had forgotten which job he had applied for. There, on the napkin, lay a cherry pit.

The silent accusation stared at him. He hadn’t gotten them all. Devon had never said a word. Eugene glanced at his wife. Did she know?

Samantha caught his gaze and frowned.

What should he do? Pretend it didn’t exist?

Samantha hung up and sauntered over. Wrapping her arm around her husband, she nuzzled his neck. “Say, how about we celebrate our successful launching of son number one into the world tonight?”

Eugene held up the cherry pit pinched in his fingers. “I missed one.” Blinking back ridiculous tears he fought the hammer blows pummeling his heart. “He could’ve broken his tooth and then—”

Samantha nudged her husband aside and practically sat in his lap, her arm still around his neck. “There are always cherry pits, honey. We’ll never get them all. Or stop rainy-day blues. Some things aren’t possible.”

Eugene nodded. She was right. But still, his heart ached. Damn cherry pit.

Footsteps approached, and Samantha practically fell on the floor in her haste to get on her feet. She stroked her husband’s cheek and then patted Devon’s arm as she headed out of the room.

Devon leaned in the kitchen doorway. “Hey, dad, before I go…just wondering…”

Eugene climbed to his feet and met his son’s bashful gaze. “Yeah?”

“Could you give me the recipe for your cherry tarts?”

Eugene smiled. He didn’t have to ask if his son wanted them with or without the pits.

They both knew.

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/cherry-berry-spring-summer-garden-2363739/

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

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/woman-coffee-cup-morning-hands-2289453/

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 

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Science Fiction Novels

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

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

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

Last of Her Kind & Newearth Justine Awakens Book Trailer I

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