Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-One

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.”

“Seriously?”

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?”

“Hello.”

The familiar voice made Bala swing around.

Clare gasped.

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.” ~Nalini Singh

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Fourteen

Hope Endures When Doubts Are Few

Bala stood on the transport-docking bay and watched as a massively muscled and well-armed human guard led a manacled Ingot forward. Bala held out his hand and accepted a datapad.

The guard grunted. “This your guy? Just give me your print, and we’ll be on our way.”

Bala studied the Ingot and pressed his hand onto the datapad. “Yep, it’s him.” He pursed his lips as they started away. “Hold on a second; I have a question.”

The guard frowned. “Hurry up, would you? I’ve got a schedule to keep. Bothmal is going to be busy tonight.”

Bala braced himself. “So tell me—why? I got all the evidence I need, but I just don’t get it. You didn’t have any record before this, and your family says that you’ve never been in any trouble before. They insist that you were practically an angel—far as Ingots go. So why hire Cho? Why kill Mrs. Hoggsworth?”

The Ingot shrugged. “Everyone has their price.”

Bala peered into his eyes. “Did someone threaten your family?”

A slight sneer cracked the Ingot’s indifference. “My family has never been safer.”

Bala shook his head. “I could argue that point. So what enticed you to risk spending twenty years at Bothmal?”

The Ingot’s derision was palpable. “I won’t be spending twenty years at Bothmal.”

Bala pursed his lips, tapping his fingers together. “It’s pretty secure. And the records are clear. You’ve got twenty with no chance of parole.”

The Ingot chuckled, swiveling his gaze over to the guard. “We going?”

The guard shrugged. “No time to waste today.” He nudged the Ingot down the long, gray corridor.

Bala stood back, frowning, as the Ingot strode to a corner, flashing back a confident grin.

~~~

Snow had fallen early in the day, but by the late afternoon, dreary, uneven shadows encompassed Clare’s study. Shelves lined with an assortment of trophies, graduation certificates, family photos, Oldearth artifacts, and a shellacked Easter egg stood in silent testimony to a few of her favorite things.

Clare hunched over a cluttered desk, one hand propping her head as she scrolled through files on a screen embedded in the wall.

A black cat sidled past, rubbing against her legs.

Clare lifted the feline onto her lap and stroked it absently. “Dang it! Justine is all over these files but only as a reference. Guess she wasn’t working for Right, after all—” She peered through the gloom at the purring cat. “Are you even listening?”

The cat meowed a long series of vowels.

Clare lifted it to eye level. “I just fed you—” She glanced at her datapad. “Is that really the time?” She stood, dropping the cat unceremoniously. “Come on. Why can’t you just hunt up some mice like all the other neighborhood quadrupeds? I bet they laugh behind their paws at you.”

The cat twirled around her legs, meowing even more plaintively.

“Okay, okay. Don’t trip me.” Clare crab-walked, avoiding the ever-present paws all the way to the kitchen, where she noticed a small mound of clothes stuffed in a corner, wedged between the hamper and the wall. With a frown, she reached down to scoop up the laundry when the cat sprang between her and the mound, a deep-throated yowl issuing from its chest.

Clare jumped back, snatching her hand out of the way. “What the hell?” She sidestepped to the closet and snatched a sweeper. Her attempt to nudge the cat out of the way failed, as the feline sprang to the center of the pile and placed its feet around a wiggling mass. Clare bent in, not too close, but close enough to realize what she was looking at. A smile spread across her face. “Awww! When did the babies come? I thought that was another week away.” She shrugged at the furious mother, who now glared as if Clare had indelicately intruded on private matters.

“Sheesh! You forgot who sprang you from kitty prison? Listen, I’m not the enemy, you know!” She ripped open a feedbag and dumped the contents into a wide dish and stood back as the cat scrambled for the food. Clare’s eyes darted from the mother cat to the kittens. Taking the smallest step possible, she leaned toward the mound. The mother cat sprang with another howl. Raising her hands in surrender, Clare backed off and returned to her wall screen, muttering. “Prison must’ve made you paranoid. Never trust a human—that your creed?” Suddenly she stopped and stared into space, a blush working its way up her cheeks. “Oh hell!”

Slapping the console, Clare worked her way around a series of files. “You know, Justine could tell me everything I need to know about Governor Right, but she happens to hate my guts just now. Justine, not the governor. Though…”

The cat rubbed itself around Clare’s ankles. Apparently, not being in the immediate vicinity of her kittens did wonders for the feline’s attitude.

Clare peered down at the cat and stroked it with her toe. “All friendly now, are we? Do you even care about me? As long as I keep that dish filled, the entire population of Newearth could be planning my demise, and you’d be content.” Clare huffed, paced across the room, and pulled on her shoes. “You think disassembling a robotic brain in the line of duty would be considered murder?”

The cat sat on its haunches, daintily cleaning its paws. A long tail swooshed contentedly around its back legs.

Clare rubbed her chin. “You don’t think it has feelings—” Clare shook her head and stomped back to her computer. She scanned the files once more and frowned. “Cerulean certainly seems to like her. And she looks at him like she might—” Slapping the keypad, the wall screen went blank. “Not my problem. He’s as old as the hills anyway!” She nodded to the cat. “I’ll trust you to keep ‘em safe. She snatched her datapad and dashed out the door.

~~~

The expanse of soft, white snow contrasted beautifully with the black, jagged branches overhead. Derik filled his lungs with the scent of distant pine trees and pristine, wintertime air. He stepped to the park bench and brushed snow to the ground in a fine dusting. His gaze swept the area and found Justine’s figure slowly approaching from the north.

His heart pounded as one hand fingered a small box in his coat pocket. It was the perfect location, the spot where they had first spoken together. Okay, they had actually first spoken in the middle of the Vandi street, but that was no place to propose, unless he wanted to end up in a hospital before she had a chance to say yes. His eyes followed her, fixed like a ship’s captain on the North Star.

Justine ambled forward, a soft smile playing on her lips. “You picked an odd place to meet today. Your apartment is a lot warmer and more comfortable.”

“I have a good reason.” He flourished a gallant gesture toward the bench. “Do you remember?”

Justine nodded. “The bench we shared the day I—”

“It was a fortunate accident that brought us together. I’d thank the driver, if I could.”

Justine shifted, digging her hands deep into her pockets. “Surely, we would’ve met eventually. Vandi isn’t so big.”

Derik placed his hands low on her waist and pulled her in close. “You believe in destiny?”

Justine swallowed, a worried gaze surveying the environment over his shoulder. “‘Faith in destiny, my beloved, entwines us true, for hope endures when doubts are few.’” She pulled back so she could look him in the eye. “Ancient Bhuac saying.” She attempted a smile. “Still, I trust my senses. After all, Vandi is only a few hundred kilometers wide.”

Derik threw back his head and laughed. “You always surprise me. Your brilliance is unmatched by anyone I’ve ever met.” He stared into her eyes. “I don’t know another woman alive who’d have loved me, knowing what I am.”

Her gaze sliding over his, Justine leaned in for a kiss. Just before their lips touched, she wrapped her fingers around his neck and pinched him.

Jerking back, Derik grimaced and rubbed his neck. “Ouch! What’s that for?” He turned pale at the sight of blood. “I’ve heard of love bites but—”

Justine held up a tiny, black dot, squeezed between her fingers. “Sorry, an insect of some kind.” She dropped it and ground the speck into the dirt.”

“A bug? Like a tick? I thought those were eradicated.”

Justine turned away, her jaws tight. “Guess not.”

Blinking back his confusion, Derik fumbled with his coat pocket. “Never mind. I’ve got something for you.” Drawing out a small velvet box, he offered it to Justine. “It’s like the one my dad gave my mom. They had to special order it, of course, because no one makes these anymore.”

After one last surveying glance, Justine focused on Derik. An eyebrow rose. “You want to give me a box?”

Derik grinned. “Not the box. What’s inside. Remember, what you said when you told me you knew the truth.”

Justine froze. “What do you mean?”

“Open the box and find out.”

With a flick, the box opened, revealing a golden band. Molded symbols curved around the edge. Justine picked the ring out of its nest and held it up to the failing light filtering through the winter sky. Hearts intertwined with ivy leaves wrapped around the outside. Etched lettering spelled the words, Derik and Justine~Forever.

Derik’s eyes glowed in reflected glory as he watched Justine’s eyes fill with tears. He smiled as he drew her into a tight embrace. “Don’t cry. It’s our future. Together.”

Justine let the tears slip down her cheeks. She was not surprised at the ring or the offer. She was surprised at the tears.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” ~C.G. Jung

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twelve

So Small on the Inside

The Newearth Museum of Human History was still under construction and probably always would be. It was five stories high and delved three stories into the ground, making a total of eight floors. Since it was built directly over the site of an Oldearth museum and had transported a significant number of artifacts from other ancient sites around the planet, it was the greatest collection of Oldearth history anywhere in the universe.

Justine stood in the enormous entrance hall, a reconstructed prehistoric cave-dwelling, and soon became absorbed in analyzing the primitive wall paintings.

“Hey, Justine! Here you are. I was looking all over.” Derik trotted to her side and stared up at the beautiful figures of ancient animals. “Yeah, my Dad liked these too. He said that the cave dwellers weren’t nearly so primitive as we like to think. They just had underdeveloped superiority—something like that.” He nudged Justine in the ribs with a grin.

Justine grinned back automatically and linked arms with her date. They strolled through the cave into further timelines denoting major ages of human development. “I like it here. It reminds me of something I can’t quite remember.”

Moving toward a life-size diorama of a medieval castle with a moat, drawbridge, keep, and battlements, Derik grinned. “Now this is where I’d like to live. Right here.” He pointed to the center of the castle where a cutout portion exposed the main hall replete with roasting venison and long, trestle tables lined with warriors enjoying a feast. The lord of the manor wore a circlet of gold and a warm smile as he lifted a goblet in a feudal salute.

Justine’s fixed smile faded as she tilted her head, first one way, then another, considering the diorama. “I don’t see any of the women smiling. Why?”

Derik shrugged.

Strolling forward, Justine stopped at the thick doors of an ancient abbey. A life-sized chapel stood to the side. Justine circled around and entered the small church arranged with wooden benches, kneelers, a confessional, and an altar at the front. Flames on wax candles wavered in the breeze she carried into the still space. A veiled figure rose, bowed toward the altar, turned, and passed them with a gentle smile and a nod.

Derik stepped aside as she passed, tucking his hands under his armpits. “It’s cold in here.”

Justine padded to the altar, caressed the cream-colored stone, and paused, her gaze fixed on the crucifix hanging above the door. “This place is alive.”

Derik shook his head. “Probably just paid actors.”

Justine gazed around the room, inhaling a deep breath. Crossing in front of a diminutive statue, she caressed the metallic face of a young woman holding a sword. Justine swallowed, blinking back a sudden, unfathomable emotion. She strolled toward the stained-glass windows, lifting her hand as if to trace the detailed pattern of colored glass. “I could live here.” Traipsing over to a side panel tucked in a recess, she tapped the “Explore” button.

A black-robed figure, who appeared to have stepped out of an Oldearth monastery, began to speak. “Welcome to St. Joan of Arc’s Chapel, originally situated in the village of Chasse in the Rhone Valley, France…”

Derik tapped his foot.

Justine stared at his foot, pressed the end button, and stopped the exploration. “Another time, then.”

Derik hugged her arm and led her toward new adventures. “There’s so much to see here. We’ll have to come again. But I really want to show you my favorite place—the dinosaur exhibit. You like dinosaurs?” Without waiting for an answer Derik pulled Justine tighter and leaned in close. “I don’t care what I see, as long as I’m with you. It’s so wonderful to—”

Justine kissed Derik, causing more than a few pairs of eyes to turn in their direction. Releasing him with a playful shove, she turned and started down the exhibit hall, pointing to a sign: “Dinosaurs: Their Rise and Demise.” She grinned.

~~~

Dressed in a form-fitting sweater, long pants, and stylish boots, Justine traipsed up the dirt path to Cerulean’s cabin. Near the top, she stopped and gazed over the great, bluish-green lake. Foaming whitecaps furiously slammed against the ice-encased coast. The green, pine-forested vista fell away behind her. She sighed, her white breath blown into the breeze, and marched the final steps to Cerulean’s cabin. A quick tread behind made her stop. She cocked her head and peered around with a furrowed brow.

From the distance, Clare called. “Hey, Cerulean, wait up a sec—”

Justine stood her ground, her bare fists on her hips.

Well bundled in a white, fluffy winter coat, thick pants, and a red tasseled hat, Clare rushed forward with her head down, fighting the cold wind. She pummeled into the silent figure like a ball bouncing off a wall. Her head jerked up, her wide eyes, startled. “Oh, you. I thought Cerulean—”

Justine’s eyes narrowed. “Seems we’re both looking for him.”

Clare stepped back on the path, wiping her pink, frozen nose with the back of her gloved hand. “Yeah, well. I need to talk to him about something important.”

Clare rolled her eyes. “What could be so important to a robot?”

“Me too.”

Justine stomped a large, menacing step forward. “I’m getting tired of your attitude. I’ve known Cerulean far longer than you.”

Clutching the ends of her coat sleeves, Clare sneered. “What? Since your prison days?” She practically danced like a squirrel taunting a wolf. “Please tell me that you’re reformed and hope to start a new life—” She underestimated Justine’s reach.

Grabbing Clare by her jacket-front, Justine pulled her close, glaring directly into her eyes. “I could crush you.”

Pretending that she was not trembling, Clare clipped her words. “How. Like. A. Robot.”

Justine dropped Clare, brushed passed, and strode a few steps down the path.

Clare called. “I know you’re a hired gun and that you have a connection with Governor Jane Right. I also suspect that you tried to kill my partner, Bala, when he got too close to the truth.” Clare crossed her padded arms high over her chest, her tone just as high and mighty. “You wouldn’t mind replacing all of humanity with machines, would you?”

Justine spun around and spat out her words. “Your jealousy blinds you. I thought humans knew how to separate fact from fiction, but apparently, that is another art you have yet to master.”

A flame rose in Clare’s cheeks. She stomped up the porch steps and then turned and peered disdainfully down at Justine. “Jealousy? I have nothing to be jealous—”

Justine jabbed a finger in the air. “You have feelings for Derik and Cerulean, but you can’t have either. Derik is more man than you can handle. Cerulean merely pities you.”

“You wretched—”

Justine waved her off as she turned. “Don’t be so easily insulted. It’s not your fault that you’re born weak. The fact that you even try to protect humanity is rather remarkable, pathetic but—”

“When I get enough evidence to tie you to that nefarious Cresta or Governor Right, I’m going to shut you down—or recycle your machinery—whatever they do with useless robots!”

Justine shook her head as she snapped branches out of her way. “Go ahead and try. But you’ll have to get in line.” Justine disappeared out of sight.

Clare stood on the porch, staring after her, blinking back tears of rage.

~~~

Governor Right tapped her fingers together pyramid style. The shadow towered above her, but she held her pose unperturbed. She had dealt with this kind before. They always make themselves appear big because they’re so small on the inside. “So you need my help, is that it?”

The ultra-luxurious office signaled her importance to the beings of Newearth. A vast majority of citizens had voted her into office, though she owned a great number of the voting machines, while the humans who managed them owed her. Sitting at her artistically fashioned desk with an inlaid marble top and hardwood legs carved into snakes and other beasts of the jungle, she waited patiently. She had all the time in the world. Well, until her next appointment. A quick glance at her desktop datapad informed her that she had room for negotiating.

The shadowed figure pronounced each word distinctly. “Like you, I wish to rewrite history. But unlike you, my history will reveal the truth.”

The governor tapped her fingers, bored. “I suppose you believe that. It always helps to believe our own lies.” The disembodied chuckle surprised Governor Right. She didn’t know any other thugs with a sense of humor.

“I don’t need to lie. Besides, I have friends, very powerful friends who agree that my service is invaluable.”

“Oh, we’re all invaluable, certainly. And what, pray tell, is my invaluable service going to include?”

The shadow glided to a dim corner as if to distance itself from the message it had to convey. “Certain associates have been experimenting with a new drug, which could assist several races in their district; their biology is similar to humans. Naturally, they want to test their product first, without repercussions.”

“Naturally.” The governor knew it was stupid to ask, but her curiosity was piqued, and she never liked nebulous details. “So why don’t you just pay for volunteers?”

“That would cost a great deal and take time. Besides, humans become unreasonable if something goes wrong. They tend to ban all further testing if too many subjects die.”

The governor waved her hand eloquently. “Your associates, on the other hand—”

The visitor’s dead tone snapped. “Could spend the entire human race and not blink an eye.”

Governor Right stiffened. “Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.” She tapped her ample bosom. “I have some sensibilities, don’t you know.”

The shadow loomed closer. “You’ll be well paid. And there is the matter of history…”

Rising, the governor shifted her large body and passed the mysterious figure. “You care about human history?”

“I find it fascinating, as do many on the Inter-Alien Committee. They have a fondness for accurate records.”

Governor Right grinned as she poured herself an amber drink, never even considering a polite offer to her guest. “Ah, yes, a fondness. I have a fondness for units, don’t you know?”

The figure floated near. “Would an extra million make you happy?”

“Delighted, would be more accurate.” The governor saluted her guest with the drink-holding hand.

The figure retreated to the door, but Governor Right waggled a bejeweled finger in the air. “Just a thought, before you go to wherever it is shadows descend—Bala.”

The shadow twisted. “Bala?”

“You know who I am talking about.”

“I would like to know more, though—”

“Please, don’t tell me that his innocent heart touches your spirit or some such drivel. After all, I don’t believe you have a heart, and I doubt anything could quench your spirit.”

The shadow grew, engulfing Jane Right in complete blackness. A strangled cry pierced the air.

The shadow receded.

Governor Right staggered. Her amber drink spilled across the smooth, tiled floor, the glass rolled out of sight. She grabbed the corner of her desk and leaned heavily against it. For several moments, she breathed, in, out, trying to steady herself, shaking off a blackout. With stiff-willed control, she raised her head and stared at the shadowed figure. “You shouldn’t have been able—I don’t believe in devils.” Reassembling her shattered dignity, the governor squared her shoulders. “You can go. I have no other questions.”

“Neither do I.”

The shadow quivered. “And Bala?”

Governor Right waved her hand weakly. “Forget it.”

“I would like to leave him intact. I enjoy studying him, but I had to teach him manners.”

A feeble nod assented. “If anyone could.”

The shadow loomed closer. “Married men with children are easy to tame.”

Governor Right chose another glass from her cabinet.

“Lucky for me—”

The shadow rose, darkening the glorious office into the premature night. “Women who want to live are equally easy to tame.”

Jane Right’s hand froze. She bowed her head. “I’m rather ashamed.”

“You should be. There is a reason I never bothered to study you.”

Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult ~Anne Rice

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Nine

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

Bala leaned over the professor’s ornate, Oldearth-styled desk and pounded his fist. “Stop lying!”

Professor Baltimore, a connoisseur of ancient civilizations with a decided bent toward OldEurope, was dressed in a tweed jacket, a white collared shirt, and black slacks. Since he was spindly, pallid, and had a voice that shrieking birds might covet, apparel and atmosphere would have to suffice for intimidation purposes. He sat back and pursed his lips in a petulant sneer. “Don’t try to frighten me.”

“I wouldn’t have to if you would stop playing games. We both know that you had an argument with Mrs. Hoggsworth the night before she died, and we both know that it had something to do with the paper you assigned—”

“To blazes with you!” Stretching every millimeter of his skinny frame, the professor shot to his feet. “That woman could argue a Cresta to the Divide and back! She liked to argue. She just happened to pick me to argue with that fateful day because her son, Timmy the Terror, complained that I was unfair. So like the youth of today. They’re always complaining! If you really want to know who killed her, you might try asking that miserable wretch of a husband of hers. Poor man, tied to that volcano. There are probably hundreds who’d love to carry her casket to burial, just to be sure that she’s in the ground, never to raise her voice again.”

Bala straightened and chuckled. “You’re rather good at this.”

Professor Baltimore glared through his ultra-fashionable, Oldearth wire-framed spectacles. “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“You maneuvered the argument away from your lies and onto Mrs. Hoggsworth’s personality. Very neatly done. I can see why the students fear you.”

Professor Baltimore smirked as he swaggered around his desk. “Flattery won’t get you anywhere.”

Bala paced over to the classroom chalkboard. “You still use one of these? Why not a holo-screen?”

“This is a history class. I like to bring the past to life. Besides, holo-screens don’t have the same effect when you run your fingernails across them.”

Bala nodded. He picked up a piece of chalk and started writing awkwardly. His body blocked the professor’s view. “Wow, I haven’t done anything like this since Sister Mary-Origen took us to an Oldearth exhibit and let us play with the replicas.”

In silent retaliation, the professor inched his way around the table, shuffling a few papers as he did so. His glance darted to the chalkboard. He lunged for the eraser, but Bala was faster.

“Tut, tut, professor! Don’t be in such a rush to erase my masterpiece. I never get a chance to create art, at least not with chalk.”

Professor Baltimore cocked an ear to the quiet hallway, then rushed to the door and shut it with a sharp click. He strode back to the front of the room and snapped out his hand.

Bala held the eraser aloft. “First tell me what you don’t like about my work. After all, I might learn something. You’re a smart man with many years of education. In fact, how old are you?”

“That is none of your business. Now erase what’s on that board or—”

“What? Granted, you might be a few milligrams heavier than me, but I’m faster and if it comes to that, I can outrun you the livelong day. Now, tell me—” Bala turned to the chalkboard where he had scrawled, “Governor Jane Right is….” in huge letters. “—what’s so wrong with my work?”

“You think you’re clever, but you have no idea who you are playing with.” Professor Baltimore stroked his beard. “You’re like the students, children really, who come in here day after day, thinking they’re ready for the knowledge that I can impart, but they have no idea of the responsibility involved. Studying history is very much like absorbing an attribute of God.”

Bala clapped his chalky hands dramatically. “So, as you play God, do you help out a few illustrious friends and write new histories, new family trees, impale the past with your chosen glory?”

The professor’s eyes lit up, blinking in watery admiration. “Lord, that’s a good line! I think I’ll steal it.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Perhaps not. But that is quite beyond your scope of understanding.” The professor returned to his desk and tapped on the computer console embedded on the surface. “You’re a detective, and you want to find a murderer. Fine. I will tell you everything I know about Mrs. Hoggsworth’s death.”

Professor Baltimore darted around the desk, snatched the eraser, and began brushing away the offending words as he spoke. “She came in here, shrieked at me in an incomprehensible rage for twenty minutes, and then stalked out into a dark and dangerous city.” His glare darted over his shoulder at Bala. “Likely as not, she screamed at some poor unfortunate thug who happened to be on his humble way to pillage or burn the nearest town.” He slapped down the eraser, raising a cloud of dust. “In any case, she annoyed someone who followed her home, blew a hole through her middle, and walked away undoubtedly feeling quite refreshed by the experience.”

Stroking his chin, Bala considered the possibilities. “So, I am looking for a petty thief?”

“Someone for hire, most likely.”

“And my artwork?”

Professor Baltimore appraised the blurry smear on the board. “There was nothing there.”

As Bala opened his mouth, a bell clanged and hundreds of hurrying footsteps flooded the hall.

Professor Baltimore smiled serenely. “Ah, saved by the clang.”

~~~

The Hoggsworth house was old, for Newearth that is, and exuded the dignified charm of a well-kept manor. It was situated on a comfortable corner lot in an upper-class, tranquil neighborhood inhabited by professional families who lived well and undoubtedly expected to die that way. They were a rare community of open-minded beings who mixed freely with others of their elevated social status. Crestas with advanced degrees and Ingots in government positions, especially diplomacy and political affairs, were accepted by the human inhabitants and in turn tolerated the Bhuacs and Uanyi hired for their discreet services in the area of child care and domestic duties.

In the somnolent living room, Bala stood awkwardly, first on one foot and then shifting to the other. He folded his hands and tossed a beseeching look heavenward. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I just hoped—”

“You hoped what? That you’d solve my wife’s murder by asking for details that tear me up inside? Frankly, I don’t give a damn anymore. It could’ve been a Cresta, a mindless Uanyi, or one of Baltimore’s students hoping for extra points. Nothing is going to bring Carol back. God, can’t we let it go?”

Bala flicked his gaze to the ceiling again, asking for guidance from an unseen source. “Look, someone killed your wife, and it’s in humanity’s best interest if we find out who. Otherwise—”

Mr. Hoggsworth slumped deeper into his overstuffed chair. “Oh hell. I’m not usually so selfish. But it’s been a trying week.”

Bala knelt and laid his hand on the gentleman’s arm. “I am sorry about your loss. I love my wife too, and if something happened to her, I’d go crazy. But Carol Hoggsworth deserves justice, and she can’t be at peace with her murderer running free.”

Mr. Hoggsworth’s eyes filled with tears. “I had to send Tim off to my sister’s place up north. He nearly lost his mind—plots of revenge. Look, you’re a decent fellow, Mr.—”

“Just Bala. My last name is a tongue twister. I had to spell it three times before the registrar would sign my birth certificate.”

A snort wrestled a grin free from Mr. Hoggsworth’s grief. He took a deep breath and sat up straighter. “To begin with, I think you need to understand who my wife really was.” Mr. Hoggsworth heaved himself out of his chair and ambled over to a roll-top desk. He shuffled through several tiny drawers until he found a miniature key. Beckoning Bala with the tiny, metal piece pinched between his fingers, he started forward. “Now, I’ve never shown this to anyone except my son, so I expect you to keep this a professional secret.”

Bala’s eyebrows rose as he followed Mr. Hoggsworth to a small bookcase on the back wall. A few tattered copies of ancient reference books and the usual Oldearth décor ornamented the shelf. Mr. Hoggsworth pulled out a faux Webster’s dictionary and pressed the key into a hidden wall hole. A click and a snap made Bala step back. One section of the wall opened, revealing a second bookcase stocked with a variety of books, all ancient and authentic.

“These were my wife’s treasures. They’re real history books that refer back to the Greeks and Romans and detail archeological finds with photos of ancient excavations and reference charts that illuminate the who’s who of history. Carol was extremely proud of our heritage. One thing she could not abide was this recent trend of changing historical records to make certain personalities appear better than they really are. It’s like how certain socialites claimed to be descended from the original Mayflower. All a bunch of hullabaloo.”

Bala tapped tentatively on one of the leather bindings and grinned. “I wish you had a cookbook among these treasures.”

Mr. Hoggsworth pursed his lips. “Well, if you’d like to know about the diets of Native Americans, Chinese, or Celts, there are recipes here. Carol once made a dish of roasted pork with fruit and wild rice that was absolutely delicious.”

Bala gulped for air. “Heaven, help me. How—?”

“She never told, but I believe that was the year when she and my son went on a three-day trip to the International Wildlife Center. Their bags bulged suspiciously when they returned.”

“I wish I had known her.” A beeping from his datapad forced Bala to check his message. “My wife would like help getting the kids in bed. All in caps.” Bala sighed and refocused on the case as he caressed a thick book. “So you think that Carol recognized a misrepresentation in Professor Baltimore’s work, confronted him, and he killed her?”

“I don’t think he did, but I think he alerted someone who did. Professor Baltimore is a mouse, but he’s clearly acquainted with a lion or two.” Mr. Hoggsworth retrieved the volume from Bala’s hand and pressed it back in the case. He relocked the cabinet.

Bala stepped back amiably enough, his mind shifting to new questions. “When I was reviewing your wife’s files, I found several articles about Governor Right.”

“Jane Right?”

“You know her?”

“I know of her… well, actually, we went to school together. Carol was her classmate. First, they were friends. Then, they were rivals. By the end, they were enemies.”

“Could she have discovered something that would rock the governor’s world?”

“Possibly. But Governor Right is not one to get her hands dirty. Not her. Besides, even if Carol knew, she wouldn’t bother with Jane. She couldn’t care less about politics. She wanted her son to trust his teachers, to know that they were telling the truth. Hence, the argument with Old Baltimore.”

“I see. Well, thank you. You’ve been most helpful.” Bala turned to go but then stopped mid-step. “Oh, I also noticed a few references to someone named Justine. I wasn’t sure if that was a file name or a person. Do you happen to know?”

“Justine? Doesn’t ring a bell. But, you know, Carol collected friends. I hardly knew them all.”

Bala bowed and swept out the door.

~~~

Clare stood outside Cerulean’s cabin on a patch of well-tilled soil and watched him scatter seeds in a wide arc from a bag looped over his shoulder. The sun shone down from a clear sky, while birds chirped encouragement from distant branches.

She tapped her foot. “You’ve taken up gardening?”

“It’s winter wheat. I’ll harvest it next summer.”

“Really?”

“And I’ll make the best bread this side of the Great Divide.” Clare pursed her lips. “Why?”

Cerulean looked up, shading his eyes from the bright sun behind Clare. “Why not? Bread is more than a staple for—”

“You know, I’m here on official business, and I don’t have time to watch you act out some antiquated Amens’ tradition.”

Cerulean tossed the last handful and patted his flattened bag, a frown darkening his face. “You’ve got an attitude.”

“Nothing new.” Clare padded across the lawn.

Folding his arms across his chest, Cerulean didn’t budge. “No, but I don’t happen to like this one.”

“Come on, Cerulean! I’m in a hurry. I have a supervisor who thinks that life is too short and wants every case solved yesterday.”

“Which case?”

“The Hoggsworth murder. I’ve got Bala going over things, but I’m not about to give up on Derik. You said you knew something. Tell me, so that I can go dig Bala out of whatever hole he’s gotten himself into.”

“Bala is a very competent detective.” Cerulean looked at the rectangular field and scratched his jaw. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to eat this much bread. You think Kendra would want some?”

“Kendra loves any sustenance, any time. Now, hurry up and talk!”

Cerulean strolled to the porch, pointing west with the folded pouch. “The strawberries will be ripe by then. I’ll try my hand at jam to go with the bread.”

Clare shook her head. “The Amens have turned you into a nature freak.”

Cerulean’s eyebrows rose as he looked back at her. “I’ll have you know, I was working on a farm generations before you were even born.”

Clare stopped at the bottom porch step and tapped her foot.

Cerulean heaved himself to the top step and sat. He looked Clare in the eye. “I went to Derik’s apartment to see how he’s getting along. I met someone I didn’t expect.”

Clare threw her hands out. “So? Is there a reason I should care? Wait. You didn’t meet his new love interest—Justine?” Clare kicked the step. “Poor, stupid guy. Is he in love with an old flame of yours? You never tell me much about your…life.”

Cerulean huffed. “That’s because there isn’t anything to tell. I wish you’d listen before leaping. How do you ever manage to solve a case?”

“End of lecture. Go on.”

“Yes, it was Justine, but Justine isn’t a love interest of mine, she’s a…person I met a long time ago. She was on trial.”

An I-knew-it eye-roll accompanied a puff of breath. “Uh-huh.”

“I was surprised to see her—alive.” Cerulean clasped his hands and stared off into the distance.

“Alive?”

“Last time I saw her, she was on a steel table being turned off.”

Clare’s mouth dropped open. “As in a robot?”

“She’s an android. A very advanced android. You’d never guess, unless you knew her history. Even then, you might not believe it.”

Clare slapped her forehead. “So, Derik is in love with a robot?”

Cerulean bounded to his feet. “Justine is not a robot. She’s a person, a combination of modern technology and fetal—”

“Don’t give me that! She’s one of those… those things that go around pretending to be human but are hired out for every dirty job under—”

“Stop! Listen to yourself. You’re not even giving me a chance.” Cerulean clambered down the steps, pushed past Clare, and pounded down the path to the woods.

Clare hustled after him. “Okay, okay! Don’t get angry. But you gotta admit; this is pretty bad. I mean, Derik’ll be crushed.”

Cerulean pivoted and faced Clare. “Human beings are quite resilient. Trust me, I ought to know.” He hustled down the path again, allowing room for Clare to keep pace at his side.

Ignoring the branches scratching against her jacket, Clare glanced at Cerulean. “So, is this Justine a nice robot-person? I mean, she isn’t a hired gun or anything.”

Cerulean paced further into the woods. “Well, actually, she was a hired gun. That’s why she was on trial. But it was a long time ago; she’s changed.”

“Terrific, just terrific! How long ago?”

“Seventy years, give or take….”

“Lord, she’s twice Derik’s age!”

“Three or four times, I’d imagine.”

“Then what is she doing? It’d be like my great-great-grandmother trying to date you. Oh, except—”

“I’d still be older by a millennium.”

“Geesh, you non-humans really mess up the romantic time-line.” Clare kept in step with Cerulean as they wound between trees. A vine clutched her pant leg and forced her to stop. “Dang these prickles. Why didn’t you eradicate them when you bought the place?”

“I like nature and all her wild and prickly personalities.” Cerulean stared down at Clare and a smile softened his features. “One of the reasons I like you.”

Sucking a pricked finger, Clare glowered. “If you like me so much, help me get unstuck. This thing is cutting me to shreds.”

Cerulean gently lifted the vine off her leg and tossed it aside. “See, you just need to know how to handle nature.”

Clare blushed. “Stay on topic.” She started forward again. “Shouldn’t Derik know? I mean his heart’s beating pretty fast for a woman who’s not even human, and who might be planning to dig him a grave so she can rack up some extra units.”

Cerulean peered up at the mottled sunlight pouring through the trees. “Things are rarely what they seem—except when they are.”

“Is that supposed to help?”

Making a one-eighty turn, Cerulean started back up the path. “I’ll talk with Justine. She trusts me, and she owes me a favor. If she’s been hired to kill Derik, she’ll tell me.”

Clare flapped her arms and skipped aside to avoid a scampering chipmunk. “Why should she talk to you? Didn’t you say you were at her trial, where apparently, she was found guilty?”

“Yeah, but thanks to me, she still has her mind.” He darted a meaningful look at Clare. “After all, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. ~William Shakespeare 

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Seven

Humanity

Derik sat across from Justine, marveling at the vision of loveliness before him. His hand trembled as he laid it on the immaculate tablecloth in front of hers.

A crowd roared in the background. Three opposing teams rushed onto a hard floor, swinging metal balls at the end of stout poles.

Justine flicked a glance at the game before returning to Derik’s gaze.

Derik shakily touched her fingertips.

Justine observed his imploring hand, mesmerized. Slowly, she extended her hand and intertwined her fingers with his.

~~~

Inside the Breakfast Nook, the Ingot hostess pounded across the room. Clare, settled at a long bench, scrolled through her datapad and tapped her fingers on the smooth tabletop.

Derik bustled through the doorway, dark circles under his eyes, searching the room. When he saw Clare, he exhaled in relief and rushed over. “Here you are. I woke up late and couldn’t find this place again. I thought I’d miss—”

The hostess clumped back to the table. “Order?”

Derik swallowed as he appraised the huge Ingot. “Just coffee and a sweet roll—please.”

The hostess charged off.

Derik shook his head. “Is she always so charming?”

“Only when she doesn’t know you.”

Derik tugged at his collar. “You have something to tell me?”

Clare sipped her coffee, assessing him over the lip of the cup. By the time she leaned back, she had made a decision. “You got the report I sent about your DNA results and the ramifications?” Returning his nod, she continued. “You’ll have to deal with some heavy Cresta fallout. You’ll likely be a pretty smart guy as your brain capacity increases, and you’ll live a whole lot longer than the rest of us.”

Derik shrugged. “Yeah, I read all that. But it doesn’t really change anything. I’m still Derik Erlandson. As a matter of fact, I’ve met someone. She’s…well, she’s beautiful, brainy, and has a working knowledge of Oldearth poetry. Wild, eh? But what’s really weird, she likes me.”

“I take it, you like her.” Clare’s expression remained neutral, an impartial judge assessing the latest case.

A nonchalant wave of the hand and an airy tone understated his exuberance. “We’re going out again tonight.”

Clare slapped down her mug and leaned forward. “Listen, I don’t want to make you paranoid or anything, but just so you know, there’re a lot of female hired guns. They get close to their victims and then—”

As if jolted by lightning, Derik jerked forward. “Justine isn’t a hired gun!” Taking a deep breath, he scrambled for a hold on his emotions as his gaze ping-ponged off the walls. “She’s wonderful and beautiful and perfect in every way. So what if she has a mysterious past?”

“Uh-huh.”

Derik rubbed his chin nervously. “I tried looking her up, and I couldn’t find anything.”

Clare’s eyebrows rose. “That does not bode well. You checked everywhere?”

Derik bit his lip. “Everywhere that’s legal.”

Clare flicked out her datapad. “Well, just to be on the safe side, let me look into it. What’s her name?”

“Justine.”

“Justine what?”

“Just Justine. She said she didn’t believe in last names.”

“Better and better….” Tucking a wisp of hair back into place, Clare stared into Derik’s eyes. “Okay, I had every intention of telling you that I can’t help you because, to be honest, I don’t think I can. I asked a friend about you, and he wasn’t too happy. Good guy, just a little protective. Don’t worry, he’s old country, a Luxonian from way back. Anyway, he advised me to drop the case and let him look into it. Last time I talked with him, he gave me the most annoying answers, full of tell- me-nothings. But I trust him. He’d warn me if—”

“Cerulean, right? I met him. Nice enough, but the guy has really bad timing. You talk about me a lot?”

“You met him?”

“He came by my place, warned me to be careful. Like I needed a warning.”

Clare folded her arms across her chest, ready for her next lecture. “Listen, Derik, Cerulean’s a pretty important man— Luxonian—I mean. He pointed out—”

“He’s Luxonian?”

“The one who pounded together the Inter-Alien-Alliance.”

“He’s either as brave as an intergalactic trader or an utter fool.”

Clare smashed her hands together into one clenched fist as her tone rose in intensity. “Anyway, he told me that it’d be in everyone’s best interest if I try to keep you alive and well.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why?’”

“Taug has a point—”

“Perhaps you should have your head examined! Don’t confuse me! I had this all figured out. Do you remember the old stories about when Oldearth was being polluted, these environmentalists convinced people to change their ways by showing them how a healthy planet would help everyone?”

Derik raked his fingers through his hair as he dropped his weary head onto his hand. “Your point?”

“Well, if the world isn’t safe for you—is it safe for anyone?”

Derik tilted his head in a reflective attitude. “Am I worth all this trouble? I just want to be happy a while and let fate have its way. I’m tired of fighting this.”

Clare put her hand over Derik’s. “How about Justine?”

“She doesn’t need me.”

“Doesn’t she?”

“She’s already perfect. I’m only a mixed—”

“Maybe she needs someone to love. Maybe she isn’t attracted to your biology but your humanity.”

Derik snorted, his gaze turning inward. “Depends on how you define humanity.”

Clare slid off the bench and stared down at Derik. “My point exactly.”

~~~

The sun slipped behind the horizon hours ago, but Bala wasn’t ready to return to hearth and home quite yet. A single lamp pooled light on a large, mahogany desk. A framed lace embroidered with the words “Hoggsworth Family” hung at his right. Bala accidentally tilted it as he leaned over, searching through Mrs. Hoggsworth’s computer database.

Governor Jane Right? What about Jane Right? A bigwig in the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, she had recently made a splash on Universal News by discovering a cache of old files that proved that her already illustrious family had a new cause to strut their stuff. He scrolled through the information and frowned. But here was a completely different take on that particular family history from a source named Justine. Hmm…

Bala sat down and ran through the files again, mumbling to himself. Who’s Justine? Whoa, if this little lady were alive today, she’d be a cache of information. Governor Jane Right better not believe in ghosts.

~~~

Bala ran at full speed, his lungs ready to burst from the effort. He slid past playing children, a speeding autoskimmer, and an amorous Uanyi couple before he reached home. He slammed through the door, skirted past a tail-waving dog, and just managed to slip onto his chair before Kendra placed a steaming plate of rice and vegetables on the table.

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Man-of-mine, if you insist on being late to everything, including my fine dinners, I’m going to tie a string to you and yank when I want you home.”

Bala surveyed the table full of wide-eyed children, his eyes twinkling as he mimicked being yanked by an invisible cord. He fell to the floor, writhing, sending the children into fits of laughter.

Kendra nudged him with her foot, her eyes rolling. “Get up before it gets cold.”

Bala returned to his seat, but his bright eyes dimmed at the sight of vegetables and rice.

Kendra lifted her hand in warning. “Don’t start with your steak and egg fantasies. I’ve got young-uns to raise. You want us to get hauled before an Inter-Alien Sensitivity Commission? No, siree!”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking it and that’s just as bad.”

Bala gripped his fork like a warrior facing a battle and set his jaw. He peered at the table full of children. “Remember, I’m doing this for you.”

~~~

Bala leaned back against a maple tree aglow with fiery autumn colors and wrapped his arms around his knees, studying the sunset through falling leaves.

Kendra strolled over.

Bala’s gaze stayed fixed straight ahead. “They in bed?”

With a muted groan, she slid down next to him. “Every last, blessed one of them.”

Bala put his arm around Kendra and drew her close. “You’re one fine mama.”

“That I am.” She appraised his somber profile. “You’re not a bad papa.”

“I try.”

Kendra shared the sunset. “What’s it this time?”

He turned his gaze, and the failing sunlight played hide and seek over his features. “Hmmm?”

Caressing Bala’s furrowed brow, Kendra locked onto his gaze. “That expression. I’d know it on the dark side of the moon. You’re worried about something.”

Bala sighed and played with Kendra’s fingers, lacing his with hers. “You know, I like puzzles as much as the next man, but sometimes I hate the picture after I’ve put it all together.”

“Want to tell me about it?”

“I want to, but I’m not sure I should. Some pretty important people might be involved.”

“By important, you mean….”

“They have resources. I don’t.”

Kendra leaned in so that their noses almost touched. “In all the time I’ve known you, Bala, you have never shirked from a challenge. Remember the First All-Species Olympics?”

A half grin peeked out of Bala’s crooked smile. “That was only in fun.”

“You almost killed yourself. Iceberg climbing, they called it; idiotic, I called it. And you all scared the penguins witless.”

With a deep breath, Bala blinked back the sudden moisture in his eyes. “Back then, I didn’t think about it. I was just playing. But now—”

A child’s wail pierced the evening.

Kendra shot to her feet nearly as fast as Bala. She patted his arm in restraint. “You’re worried about us. I understand; I worry about us, too. But, man-o-mine, you’ve got to live. If you tie your spirit to safety, you’ll have to lock yourself at home. Not that you’d be safe here—”

The crying rose a decibel. Kendra strode forward. “Coming, baby.” She peered over her shoulder at Bala’s barely discernible outline against the falling night. “God made us of strong stuff. But remember, you got to the top by building steps.”

Bala’s eyes glowed as he watched Kendra retreat inside. When the shrieking stopped abruptly, a slow smile spread wide across his face.

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go. ~T. S. Elliot

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Six

A Small Matter

A sudden cold blast swirled orange and yellow leaves around like a graceful tornado. The leaden sky foretold a storm to come.

Justine strode through gleaming glass doors into the Cresta science building, a stark structure with little ornamentation, aside from brilliant white walls painted with intertwining blue-green waves, undulating in swirls along the corridor.

Justine didn’t try to hide the smirk that broke the usual straight line of her mouth as she entered. Scientists to their flabby cores. Why do they bother with primitive art?

Eschewing the lift to the fifteenth floor, she ascended the steps at a rapid pace. An overweight man with graying temples and slumped shoulders huffed his way down the steps and almost smacked into Justine, forcing her to stop. His dark-circled eyes widened in surprise, and then just as quickly, crinkled into appreciative desire.

Without hesitation, Justine took the steps three at a time, disappearing from view within seconds. By the time she reached Taug’s floor, she looked down the circular staircase and beheld the speck of a man still standing there. Her smirk turned into a headshaking frown.

“Taug?” Justine entered the laboratory and appraised the expensive medical equipment standing, hanging, and lying on steel tables. An examination tube extended from the wall while an obscured dissection victim floated in amber liquid and patiently laid in wait. A Cresta’s vision of Heaven.

A shuffling noise turned her attention to the curved wall that narrowed into a tunnel on the left.

Taug padded into view. He looked up, and his puffy lips broke into a broad grin. “You are on time. Excellent! I should’ve had more trust. I was just pondering what to do if you didn’t show up.”

Justine fingered a long tube that ended in a spray gun, her eyes wandering the length as if to judge how far it would reach. “And?”

Taug lumbered up and waved her hand off the tube. “Careful, that’s not mine. I’m here as a guest. It would cost more than I will earn in a Cresta year to pay the fine if anything were broken.” His winning grin softened the chastisement.

Justine slid her hand down the tube and turned toward a six-foot window facing the bustling city below. “What would you have done?”

Taug shook a tentacle playfully as his watery brown eyes gleamed in appreciation. “You have wit and persistence. Two traits I admire very much.” He turned toward the dissection tube. “I would have sent out a bulletin describing you down to your nano-cells, alerting the public that a dangerous android was on the loose and must be destroyed by order of the Inter-Alien Commission.”

“A lie that you could never explain away.”

“I wouldn’t have to. As far as the Inter-Alien Commission knows, you don’t exist. I could make up an extravagant lie, and they would have no knowledge to refute my argument. I would win by default.”

Justine took a step nearer the bulky form. Her eyes narrowed. “You. Are. Dangerous.”

Taug’s grin twisted, offering a one-shouldered shrug. “True. But that makes two of us. You see now why I’m so happy you came.” He padded to the window and nodded toward the milling throng appearing as multicolored dots to his Cresta eyes. “They mostly do as they are told because they lack the imagination to do otherwise.” His gaze flitted back to Justine. “Not the case with you.”

“You, a Cresta scientist, dare to flatter me?”

Taug’s shoulders shook with mirth. One tentacle reached out and patted Justine’s shoulder. “You delight me.”

Justine rebutted his twinkling gaze with glowering eyes and a set jaw.

“Yes, well.” He waddled to a desk set against the wall and pulled out an extra-large datapad, useful for beings with poor eyesight. “While you were out familiarizing yourself with your new home, I was busy at work introducing myself to my—”

“Victim?”

Taug’s eyes darkened as his fixed smile stiffened. “No, my patient. I intend to study him. My instructions are deceptively simple, but I’m not sure that anyone really understands what they mean.”

“So, why am I here? I have no interest in your studies or your instructions.”

“Your interest is beside the point. I must keep my options open. Above all, I must appear to be following orders. You will assure me of success, no matter what happens.”

“How?”

“If necessary, you will kill my patient.”

“If I would rather not?”

“Why would you not? He’s nothing to you. You care for no one, remember?”

“When did I say that?”

“You have lived that way your whole existence.”

“I might have changed.”

Taug lifted his datapad. “I am not offering you your past. I am offering you a future.” He tapped on the screen and a hologram of Justine appeared in front of them. The spaces designated for name and biography were blank. “Once this task is complete, you will be free to become whomever you wish.”

Justine paced to the window and peered at the milling throng. She could see every grimace, laugh, and furrowed brow. The image of a small crumpled face and wobbling lips forced her to close her eyes.

Taug twitched behind her.

Justine opened her eyes, turned, and locked onto his gaze. “As you say, I do not lack imagination.”

Taug beamed.

~~~

In a calf-length, billowing dress, Justine stood as still as a statue on the Vandi city sidewalk beside a red and yellow lettered sign alerting the pubic to the Book Nook’s “Out of This World Sale.”

Derik bustled by, nearly knocking it into the street.

Justine’s eyes monitored his every move as he neared the busy intersection. Scrolling through a Cresta-sized datapad, he did not see a teen weaving through the crowd in his direction. Suddenly, the boy sprang between him and a waiting Bhuac and then darted forward.

As he was jostled, Derik frowned and looked up in time to see the boy sprint in front of an on-coming autoskimmer. Derik gripped the teen’s arm and yanked him onto his backside.

Justine’s eyes narrowed.

Within seconds, Derik was at the teen’s side, concern etched across his brow.

The teen nodded and bounced to his feet.

Derik patted him on the back. In another moment, the teen was pacing away while Derik’s attention returned to his datapad.

Pursing her lips in determination, Justine marched ahead of Derik, placed herself just within his field of vision, and proceeded to step in front of an oncoming autoskimmer.

Screams set the crowd into action. A Bhuac shrieked for medical assistance, while a Cresta caught the autoskimmer driver—a shaking human with horrified eyes—in a death grip. “Reckless driver!”

The driver protested her innocence, writhing in misery.

Lying prone, Justine looked away and waited.

Derik hobbled over. “Can I help?”

Relief animated Justine’s face. She rose to a sitting position. “I’m all right, just shaken.” She jutted her chin in the direction of the driver and the outraged Cresta. “It wasn’t her fault. I wasn’t looking.” She darted a glance at the driver with a shrug. “Sorry. My mistake.”

The woman huffed, shook off the offending tentacles, and retreated to her vehicle. “Be more careful, would you? Could’ve gotten us both killed.”

Justine nodded. Her eyes skipped back to Derik, and she tilted her head charmingly. She peered into Derik’s brown orbs. Smattered offers of assistance faded into the background. “Could you find me a place to rest?”

Derik glanced about. “Vandi Park is just across the street.”

With a regal-like wave of the hand, she gestured her acceptance. “Please.”

Grinning, Derik led his damsel-in-distress through the gawking crowd. He motioned to a forest-green bench picturesquely placed underneath a golden-red maple tree.

Justine crossed her beautifully shaped legs, threw back her head as the cool autumn breeze caressed her hair, and closed her eyes.

Derik leaned against the tree, his eyes traveling over her perfect form.

Justine opened her violet eyes and caught Derik’s admiring gaze. “You’re a gentleman, sir. Most people get very excited but are of little use in a crisis.”

Raking his fingers through his hair, Derik shrugged. “I like to help when I can.”

Justine’s gaze traveled down Derik’s body, landing unceremoniously on his Cresta-style boots.

After swallowing, Derik coughed and looked away. “I’ve never seen you before. I work in the housing department, so I see almost everyone every couple of years when they renew their permits. You live around here?”

Justine shook her head and searched Derik’s pensive face. “Not yet. I just arrived a few days ago. If you have any suggestions—?”

Derik returned his gaze to her with a twinkling grin. “How about dinner and we discuss possibilities?”

Justine’s eyebrows rose. Yes, she had to agree with Taug, this mixed breed might be worth getting to know.

~~~

A solid knock shattered Derik’s free-spirited humming. His hand froze over the top button of his dress shirt as he darted a scowl from the hall mirror to the new three-paneled door. Five indecisive seconds passed before he marched over and swung the door wide. “What?”

Cerulean, straight shouldered and dressed in a casual jacket and slacks, stood before him, one eyebrow raised. “Please tell me you don’t do that every time someone knocks on your door.”

Derik’s scowl darkened. “What’s it to you?”

Cerulean pointed into the living room. “May I? This isn’t the kind of thing I like to discuss in the hallway.”

Derik threw up his hands. “Why not? Seems like everyone feels more comfortable in my living room.”

Cerulean appraised the large bookshelves, the assortment of Oldearth artifacts, and two very good oil paintings.

“You’re not here to tell me that you plan to kill me? Are you?”

Cerulean spun around. “No. Why do you ask?”

“It’s been done once this week. It’d get boring if we repeated it.”

Cerulean heaved a sigh. “That’s what I was afraid of. I told Clare this was too big for her.”

“You know Clare? The detective for Human Services?”

“She’s a friend of mine. My name is Cerulean.” He offered his hand.

Derik’s gaze shifted aside, passing up the offer. “Yeah, well, she’s a friend of mine too, but she can’t help me now.” Reflexively, Derik smoothed down his shirtsleeves.

“Why is that?”

“Listen, you just barge in here acting like you know all about me and—wait, what do you know?”

Cerulean nodded toward the couch. “May I?”

Waving his hand in impatience, Derik tramped across the room. “Just sit, would you? Now talk!”

With an ill-boding creak, the couch sagged as Cerulean sat precariously on the edge and laced his fingers. “It’s not complicated. Clare told me about your predicament. She’s gotten the DNA results back and—”

Retreating to the hall mirror, Derik made quick adjustments. He sucked in his gut, tucked his shirttails, and straightened his collar. “I got the results too. Some Cresta brain created me in his lab, and it turns out that his son—Taug by name—has been sent to eliminate his father’s—shall we say—indiscretion.”

Cerulean rose, his face flushed. “How’d you find out about Taug? I had to pull a lot of strings to learn that. It was a Taugron who created you.”

Turning from side to side, Derik nodded approval at his appearance. “Well, Taugron must be Taug’s dad because he told me that his father created me.” A quick run-through with the brush and Derik stood in front of Cerulean. “He explained the whole thing very nicely…considering.”

The sun could have just imploded from the expression on Cerulean’s face. “Taug was here?”

“Sat on that very same couch. He was actually pretty nice, even bandaged—anyway, he’s not planning on eliminating me—today.”

Cerulean slapped his hand to his cheek and paced across the room. “I don’t understand. Why reveal himself?” He spun around. “What did he want?”

White knuckling the edge of the couch, Derik tried to pass off a lighthearted shrug. “To tell me the truth. He figured that if I understood why I was created, maybe I’d be able to accept the need to eliminate me.”

“What?” Cerulean gripped Derik’s arm. “And you believe him? He’s a Cresta!”

His affected composure failing, Derik jerked his arm free. “He cares about me!”

Cerulean snorted as he backed off. “Crestas don’t care about anyone outside their own race.”

Pulling himself up to full height, Derik rolled up one sleeve and revealed his darkened, enlarged arms. “I’m Cresta, remember?”

“Only thirty-seven percent—remember?”

A sharp knock on the door froze them in place. With a shake, Derik glared at Cerulean and marched to the door.

Cerulean stepped in his way. “Be careful. You don’t know who’s out there.”

Derik nudged Cerulean aside. “My days of being careful are over. Besides, I have a date, and I’m not about to be late.”

Derik flung open the door and faced Justine’s perfect face and form.

Her violet eyes peered into his. “I thought we were supposed to meet at the Coliseum an hour ago. You didn’t show up so I—”

“An hour ago?” Derik fumbled to retrieve his datapad from a deep pocket. His eyes widened. “It’s dead! I thought these never died. I mean—sorry, come in. I appreciate your concern.” He glared at Cerulean. “Some other day, eh?” He flashed a lopsided grin at Justine. “I’ll just grab my jacket.” Derik hurried down the hall, speaking over his shoulder. “Bye, Cerulean.”

Cerulean wandered closer to the woman, mesmerized.

Justine stood her ground, her gaze roaming freely over Cerulean. An image of him standing over her filled her mind. She felt the warmth of his touch—“Cerulean?”

“Justine?”

Derik reentered the room glancing from Justine to Cerulean. “Still here?” He sidestepped the older man. “If you want to stay, fine. There’s not much to steal but lock up when you leave.” He took Justine’s arm. “Let’s go.” Suddenly he frowned and stopped in mid-step. “Wait. How’d you know where I lived?”

Justine smiled brilliantly as she wrapped his bulky arm around hers. “You said you worked at the Housing Department. I looked you up. Easy.”

Derik continued his forward momentum. “Oh, yeah. Sorry. Getting paranoid.”

Justine glanced into Cerulean’s eyes as she passed. “Bye, Cerulean”

Cerulean nodded. “Justine.”

~~~

Mitholie’s relaxed, dripping face appeared on a wide holo-screen. His tentacles rested on the hard edge of a murky green pool. He beamed. “Hello, my friend! How do you like your new home?”

With aching feet and chaffed skin, Taug stood stiffly in front of a stark wall-sized screen in the laboratory and smirked in re- retaliation. “Newearth has been very pleasant, though it’s always a challenge getting accustomed to the necessary adaptations.”

“Ah, yes. I hate the suits. Life out of water.” The smug grin widened. “But never mind; you were made for adventure. I assume you have news?”

Taug huffed through his breather helm, his tentacles clenched around his middle as if holding back spontaneous combustion. “I have made contact and arranged for a skilled professional to attend to the situation.”

Mitholie’s upper body wiggled in exuberance. “Wonderful! Wonderful! The dark waters will converge, covering everything. Your father’s memory will be only that—a memory.”

Taug’s tentacles squeezed tighter. “Thank you.”

A grand wave dismissed Taug’s humility. “Don’t thank me. I just want to see you home again. Soon. There are changes planned.” Mitholie’s eyes glittered, reflecting rainbows dancing off the gentle waves.

“I will see to matters.”

“Good! Very good! I know it’s annoying, but the High Council—”

“Understood.”

Mitholie readied himself for an exuberant dive. “After all, it’s a small matter.” He nodded to the pool. “The water calls.”

Taug unwrapped his tentacles, spreading them wide in obeisance as he bowed his head.

The screen blinked into blackness.

As he stood alone in the dry, dark room, Taug’s head rose, his shoulders straightened, and a gleam sparkled from his half-lidded eyes.

“More important than finding the truth—is finding the reason why one needs to lie.”
~Mystqx Skye

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I Don’t Have To See Christmas

“Ya know…you’ll never live to see the nuts ripen from that tree. Much less eat them.”

George grunted as he pressed the shovel deeper into the sod. He didn’t look up, but his grunt served a duel purpose. At eighty-three, it took every ounce of his strength to dig even a moderately deep hole. This one had to be large enough to bed a well-rooted sapling. The woody mate stood proudly to the side, evidence that George’s tenacity hadn’t dwindled with the years. He glanced aside. Had his guttural response made his point quite clear?

Randy sucked a hard candy and nodded. “You know what I mean, though.”

Stabbing the earth to create a soft landing, George turned the shovel every direction he could and broke up the larger clumps. Satisfied he motioned to the arboreal infant.

Obliging, Randy placed the root ball in the center of the hole. Together the two men shoved loose earth around the exposed plant. Randy lugged a twenty-pound bag of luxurious soil to the edge and using both hands, poured the rich blackness around the trunk, creating an even mound.

“That’ll do.” George sloshed a five-gallon bucket of water to the edge and tipped it near the base. The mound melted like sugar in tea.

Randy poured more dirt and sucked the last of his candy bits from his teeth. “You’re doing this for grandkids, then?”

A woman’s voice called from the doorway. “Dinner’s ready. You boys better hurry up or it’ll get cold. Janie’s going to stop by on her way to the bank and pick up that piece you want repaired. Better be washed up.”

Randy shook his head as he tossed the nearly empty dirt sack over his shoulder. “What’s the bank got to do with a well pump, I want to know. That woman just likes to run around town. All day and every day.”

The empty bucket banged against George’s knee as he walked. “The grass is always greener…”

As they entered the kitchen door, the smell of fried chicken, baked potatoes, boiled asparagus, and brownies smacked into them like the first day of summer vacation. Olfactory nerves did a happy dance.

Selma looked Randy up and down, apparently considering whether to send him back out the door or let him stay. “You get that last quarter done?”

“Sure. I just stopped by to see if—uh…”

Selma patted the tall man’s arm. “Well, you can eat and then help Janie put that pump part in her car.” She glanced at the laden table, ticking items off her fingers. “Oh, shoot, the butter!” She twirled and shot off, a heat-seeking missile after a new target.

Randy slipped into the nearest chair silent as a mouse sniffing the cat’s dinner dish.

A woman wearing a composition of pink jeans, a sky blue blouse with matching sandals, and jingling earrings, bounded into the room, pulled up short, and pressed her hand against her chest. “Thank God! I was afraid I’d find you all laid out on the floor.”

Sliding the butter dish beside a tall stack of bread, Selma eyed her cosmopolitan daughter. “We don’t usually eat on the floor, darling. Why’d we start now?”

George came in drying his hands on a towel. He worked his way around his DNA replica and dropped the towel in Randy’s lap.

Randy took the hint, slid out of chair, and headed for the tiny washroom off the kitchen door.

George plunked down at the head of the table and answered his wife’s question. “She heard that the economy is collapsing, our leaders are fools, there are twenty-three new ways to die, and—rumor has it—a comet is heading directly for earth.”

Randy poked his head out the washroom doorway, a confused frown running riot over his forehead. “Does that mean that the sky is falling—literally?”

With admonishing fingers, Selma waved the obscene consideration into oblivion. “This fried chicken won’t get any tastier just sitting here.”

“But, mom!” Janie’s hoops danced. “We have some really big problems to discuss—”

George clasped his hands and bowed his head. “They’ll wait till after dinner.”

Prayers said.

The meal commenced.

Selma was right.

The dinner could not have been tastier.

As he scooted his chair back, George peered from his wife to his daughter and finally landed on his nephew. “You asked if the nut trees are for the grandkids.” His gaze bounced off his daughter. “If we ever have any.”

Randy wiped his mouth, his eyes rolling upward, a clear attempt to retrieve his languid thoughts from the morning. “Yeah. Well…it’ll take a long time for those trees to mature, you know.”

Selma stopped; plates piled high on her left arm, her right swinging a dishcloth. “You planted them!” Her gaze softened, and she scurried to the window. Craning her neck, she smiled, unloaded the dishes, returned to her husband, and threw her arms around his neck. “You are the dearest man alive!”

Janie shook her head. “Like nut trees are going to any good. We’ll be lucky to see next Christmas the way things are going!”

In an act of open defiance, Randy tipped back his chair—normally a no-no. “To be honest…I don’t see the point either. Janie’s divorced and neither of us has kids…so who—”

“I don’t have to see Christmas to believe that someday, someone will enjoy those pecans.”

Selma wiped her sentimental, tear-filled eyes. “I told George I wanted him to show me that he loves me—in a new way.”

“What do pecans—?”

George chuckled. “She always loved those nuts. So when I proposed, I put a ring on the top of a pecan pie and gave it to her.”

Randy’s chair legs hit the ground, his eyes wide, taking in unrealized vistas of reality. “I never knew you had it in you—”

Janie straightened her shoulders and shot to her feet. “We’re just wasting time. I’d better get that pump part. At least I can do something useful.”

Randy took his cue, stood and bowed his gratitude to Selma. He pressed George’s shoulder as he followed his cousin out the door. “Never would’ve guessed.”

Selma sighed, reaching for her husband’s hand, her wedding ring glinting in the noonday sun as it poured through the kitchen window. “She doesn’t understand, does she?”

George stood and wrapped his arms around his wife. “Few do.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Three

The Mingling Throng

Cerulean stared up at the lofty two-storied cabin with large gabled windows and wide surrounding porch and grinned. It was everything he had dreamed of and more. Turning his head, his gaze swept over the lofty panorama, skimming across the waters of the great lake. Huge, white geese flew high above the bubbling crests that rolled up on the shore on this fine, summer evening.

He was exhausted, but he was getting used to that sensation. Ever since he won his last great tussle with the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, he had promised himself a retreat and a rest to build up his depleted reserves. He had been fighting Luxonians, humans—and pretty much everyone else—for far too long.

Even as his shoulders relaxed, shuffled footsteps forced him to turn his gaze from the blue-green water, across the pine-strewn forests, and back to the front of his cabin. There, on the dirt trail, a small assembly of men and women came to a huddled stop. His whole body stiffened and he frowned. Who the—?

The eldest figure spoke first. “Excuse us, sir. We hate to bother you, but are you Cerulean, the Luxonian leader of the Inter-Alien—?”

Cerulean sighed, his shoulders drooping. Oh, God. He peered into their tanned faces, appraised their homespun clothing and work-roughened hands, and repented his impatience. Give me strength. “I’m not the leader of anything anymore. I’ve retired.”

A tall, extremely thin representative of the group stepped forward. He strangled a straw hat in his hands and shuffled his feet. “But you are that Luxonian?”

Cerulean shrugged. “I helped patch together the Inter-Alien Alliance on Newearth, yes.” His gaze roved over the group as a baby, hidden from sight, squalled. “Is there something I can do for you?”

The tall man took another hesitant step forward, his brown-eyed gaze looking up the slope and into Cerulean’s piercing eyes. “My name is Able, and you see, we’re settlers here, neighbors, kind of. We call ourselves the Amens. Separatists. We want to return to the ways of our ancestors and live in union with God’s created world.”

A wavering grin played on Cerulean’s lips. “The Bhuac would love you.”

Able’s face brightened as a smile broke the straight line of his mouth. “Yes, sir, we know of them, and they do support our dream, but they have their own struggles. They’ve been persecuted too.”

“Someone’s persecuting you?” Cerulean pursed his lips. “Listen, this is no way to get acquainted. Please, step up here. The porch is large enough, and I have a few chairs. I’ve even got some food inside if you like.”

The two women offered sidelong glances and grinned as the elder one shifted her baby from under a blanket onto her hip. The other men started forward. Able put up his hand. “We wouldn’t think of disturbing you, but it would be a kindness to speak in the shade. The sun is hot, though the breeze you have up here is a real blessing.”

Cerulean opened his hands in a welcoming gesture, and the group filed past and climbed the four wooden steps. In quick jerking motions, he dragged chairs forward. “I just moved in, and I haven’t gotten everything set up yet.”

Able waved his hand anxiously. “Please, we only want a few moments of your time to explain our mission and why we need your help—if you don’t mind.”

Cerulean leaned against a post, suppressed a sigh, and nodded.

The three men moved into the background, while the two women settled into the available chairs. The mother rocked her baby with a relieved smile.

Able continued to wring his hat as he focused his attention on Cerulean. “You see, we were granted immigration status four years back, but it took time to organize our people and buy the right plot of land. We don’t want to trouble anybody, and we have no prejudice against any race, but we do have rules we must abide by. We choose to live simply and in union with nature. That’s why we moved into this wilderness over a year ago. At first, everything went along as planned. We built homes for our members and worked the land so that we could plant, and we even made a few contacts with businesses in Waukee.”

Cerulean saluted Able with an appreciative nod. “Sounds like you’re a marvel of planning and industry.”

Able accepted the compliment with a shy smile before his face sobered. “Well, we aren’t afraid of hard work, but we are afraid of death threats.”

“Death threats?”

“About six months ago, a mob of Uanyi showed up and told us to move on, that we’re not welcome in this district. I told them that we had the authorization of the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee to buy land here and that we have full human rights to form our own society as we see fit. I even showed them our data chip authorizing—”

“They ignored it, didn’t they? Uanyi don’t much care for humans. They’ll continue trying to intimidate you if they think they can get away with it.”

“They did a whole lot more than intimidate. They beat three of our men senseless and threatened to come back and kill our women and children if we didn’t leave.”

Cerulean’s frown deepened as he pushed off from the post. “Did you inform the Human Rights Bureau? Get any Interventionists out here?”

Able sighed. “A couple of Interventionists flew in and took down our complaint. But they told us that since we didn’t have any hard evidence, it’s going to be difficult to follow up. I went all the way to Vandi and issued a formal complaint, but the Human Rights detective I met said that threats against humans were too numerous to deal with. Humans are the minority and what with the Cresta, Uanyi, Ingot, and Luxonians—pardon me, sir, but not all Luxonians are like you—we find that we have very few rights and even fewer friends. At least not anyone who can help to defend us against a band of unruly Uanyi.”

Cerulean sat on the top step and rubbed his hands over his face. He let his gaze absorb the vast beauty before him and took a deep breath. Craning his neck, he looked back at the assembly.

Able blinked and glanced away. “You can’t help us?”

Cerulean rose and strode to the woman and the now sleeping infant. He smiled at the bright pink face nestled against his mother’s enfolding body. With a gentle finger, he caressed the tousled, straw-colored hair and peered into the mother’s eyes. “I’ll do everything I can. I have friends. Just give me a few days to track down these Uanyi idiots, and I might be able to convince them that it’ll be in their best interests to leave you alone.”

Relieved smiles broke across every face. The mother’s eyes filled with tears as she reached out and gripped Cerulean’s hand, her voice a shy whisper. “Thank you.”

Cerulean nodded. “Well, I don’t know about you, but solving problems makes me hungry. How about you come in and I’ll scratch up…something?”

A burst of laughter followed this as the two women shuffled to their feet. Able gripped Cerulean’s shoulder. “On the contrary, you’ll be our guest tonight, if you’ll do us the honor. My wife is one of the best cooks on the planet, and her sister can brew the finest tea this side of the moon.”

Cerulean grinned at Able’s soft, delighted eyes. “I can hardly wait to meet them.”

Perching his rumpled hat jauntily on his head, Able grinned back. “You already have.” The small troop shuffled down the steps with Able guiding the woman and baby. He looked back at Cerulean as he stopped on the trail, the rest of the group traipsing down the incline. “I’ll come back at sunset and lead you over. We’ll gather everyone to celebrate.”

Cerulean sighed. “I hope you aren’t counting on me too much. I’ll do the best I can, but you know, trouble is part of life here on Newearth.”

Able bobbed his head in agreement and turned away with a wave. “True, true, but we’ve got the best reason in the universe to be glad. It isn’t every day that you meet a new friend.”

Cerulean’s gaze followed the small group as they traipsed away.

An odd sensation made him look down. His legs were shaking. In fact, his whole body shook. Collapsing on the bottom step, he held his head in his hands and groaned.

~~~

Stopping just outside the Vandi Transport Center, Justine stared. Her eyes dilated for maximum reception. Humans wearing every assortment of casual and formal attire, insect-like Uanyi with their soft, rubbery exoskeletons, Ingots in their bulky techno-organic armor and breather helms, Crestas with their tentacles and mechanical exoskeletons, and Bhuacs, appearing like fairies from an Oldearth storybook, all bustled about, intermingling on an ordinary city street.

So this is Newearth? Justine smiled to herself. At least I am free of Taug for a few hours. Pity the universe hasn’t improved its business class accommodations. Still, I won’t complain. I am alive, after all.

Moving forward, Justine fell into step with the scurrying mix of life forms. Her heightened sense of hearing and sight allowed her to absorb vast and complex information with relative ease. After crisscrossing the main sections of the developing city, she recorded a perfect map of each of the important structures: hospitals, schools, shops, assorted businesses, and government buildings. Each alien race had an embassy suited to its specific needs.

The Crestar structure enclosed a two-hundred-meter pool filled with imported Crestonian water and loaded with the best livestock that Crestar officials could afford.

The Uanyi embassy was built half-underground with a smooth, rounded surface, which appeared much like an enormous anthill, meeting the needs of the insect-like race perfectly but sending their human neighbors into fits of disgust.

The Ingots, being fond of straight lines and geometric shapes, devised their structure so that it looked very much like a computer chip, which created a startling contrast to the rest of the Vandi environment.

The Bhuacs’ obsessive devotion to nature compelled them to build their embassy on the outskirts of the city, imitating the trees and hills so perfectly that many citizens simply passed by, never realizing that the structure was anything more than the natural environment.

At Vandi Central Park, Justine stopped at the sound of laughter. A small group of children swung on a swing set that allowed them to fly high into the air, jump, and fall into a safety net. An older boy encouraged a younger child to let go and free fall.

“It’s safe. You saw me do it, Joe. Go on. Let go! You’ll love it.”

Two younger girls watched in mesmerized fascination as Joe flew higher and higher, his grip tightening on the swing.

Justine’s gaze swept the assembly. A mirrored smile crept across her features at the children’s enthusiasm. It did look like fun.

Suddenly, Justine’s eye caught the glint of a ragged piece of metal. She focused her gaze on the top bolt that held the structure together, attaching the swing structure to the welcoming net. Snap!

Pounding across the short grass, Justine reached out for the child just as he finally gained the courage to let go. As he flew up, Justine dived. With her arms outstretched, she slid across the gravel towards the small falling body. A snapping crack rent the air as the structure broke completely. Shrieks filled the park, and Justine felt the heavy thud as the child landed in her arms. She leaned into the fall and allowed its momentum to skid her further along the gravel. She’d have to make repairs before she met with Taug this evening.

When the last pebble skidded to a halt, Justine gazed into the small crumpled face, the eyes squeezed shut, lips wobbling. She folded her arms protectively around the child. His piercing blue eyes opened wide, startled, amazed. His expression of gratitude touched the depth of her being.

A pudgy, tanned hand pressed on her shoulder.

Justine, forced to unlock her gaze, glanced back, following the trail of the arm, the shoulder, and then another face, wide-eyed and blanched with fear. She sucked in a breath and offered a small grin. Straightening, she shifted the boy from her arms onto his own shaky feet.

His hand gripped hers tightly, squeezing her thumb.

With a comforting pat, she rose to her knees and looked him in the eyes again. “You’re okay. That was a close call. Lucky I saw the hinge break.”

The older boy pressed closer, putting his arm around little Joe. He peered deep into Justine’s eyes, shaking his head. “You moved so fast. It was—I don’t know. I never saw anything like it. He could’ve broken his neck if you hadn’t caught him.”

Justine quickly brushed her pant legs, covering the tears and the lack of blood. She straightened to her full height and tilted her head as she appraised the elder boy. “You would have done the same, if you had seen it in time.”

The elder boy shook his head again. The girls shuffled closer, their gazes shifting between Joe and Justine. The smaller girl touched Joe’s arm, stroking him like a cat, while the other pointed to Justine’s legs.

“That must hurt. You want to go to a doctor and get it looked at? My mom’ll pay. You saved Joe.”

Justine’s face twitched in the glimmering, late afternoon sunlight. The sounds of the bustling city carried on as usual. “I’m fine. A little scrape doesn’t bother me.” She stepped away from the small group and glanced back. “Glad to help.”

She turned and, sweeping her long legs across the street, entered the mingling throng.

~~~

“There’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple…” ~Scott Adams

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter One

All My Sins Remembered

“We have definite…” The Luxonian Supreme Judge in a trim human form and dressed in a dark blue robe, stirred in her seat, “…proof that you assassinated well over a hundred and fifty beings on the troop transport called…” She glanced down at a datapad, “…the Generous Sharon.” She fixed her black-eyed gaze on the lone figure standing on the floating dock with narrowed eyes.

Well over fifty delegates had gathered at Bothmal Criminal Court and sat on comfortable chairs, each tailored for a particular species. Every sentient race on the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, including Ingots, Uanyi, Crestas, Luxonians, Bhuacs, and humans had at least one representative in attendance. No race wanted to be absent from this trial. Hundreds more sat in the court’s upper wings, savoring the spectacle while millions watched the unfolding drama on holoscreens.

The figure standing silently at the center of this hurricane of watchful emotion was a biomechanical hybrid, an android built in female form, in this case, human. Long black hair fell like a cascading waterfall down her back; her blue eyes stared straight ahead, peering into shadows. Massive cuffs, secured with powerful magnets and chains, were locked tightly about her wrists and ankles.

The android moved slightly, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. An expectant hush settled over the assembly. The silvery rattle and clanking of chains broke the quiet.

“Well?” The Supreme Judge leaned forward in her chair, fixing the prisoner with narrowed eyes and lowered brows.

“Yes.” The word was a sigh, not of regret, but of weariness or boredom. “Yes, I killed them.” She glanced up at the massive holoscreen hovering over the assembly. On its curved surface the security recordings from the Generous Sharon played on a constant loop. “My guilt is…pretty obvious. There’s no point denying it.” A small smile curved at the corners of her lips.

Cerulean shifted to the edge of his seat and coughed lightly into his hand. “If I may ask, why?”

Pondering a moment, the android straightened. “They were in my way.” Her musical, almost bell-like voice would have been lost in the echoing chamber if not for the amplifiers.

“Justine, correct?” Cerulean folded his hands into his long robes, leaning forward.

“That is my name.”

“It was necessary, you say. Did you feel no…revulsion? Pity? Empathy? How could it be necessary to end the lives of over a hundred beings?”

Justine placed her shackled hands on the dock’s rails. “You work in this hall. Did you ask the building permission to occupy it? What its feelings were?”

Two delegates, a Cresta and a human, spoke at once.

“So, you compare yourself to an inanimate object?”

“Are you suggesting that you, as an android, cannot be sentient?” The human representative’s fingers nervously played with a datapad.

Cerulean raised his hand. “Justine, I’ve read the reports, your psychological profile.” He cocked his head. “You’ve made jokes, noted ironies—shown a full range of emotions. Are you suggesting that, like an inanimate object, you can’t feel or rather, that you had no choice?”

Justine looked at the human, turning slightly. “The Inter-Alien Commission declared that it is impossible for a robot to be sentient. That is your belief. I say nothing about my own.” She fastened her cold, blue eyes on the Cresta. “I am the product of fetal tissue and a computer. How much choice do I have?” Her lips curved mockingly.

“Well, we know she appreciates sarcasm.” The Cresta’s dry wit drew a chuckle from the crowd.

The Supreme Judge rapped her gavel on the metallic podium. “Order! Order!”

Silence fell as the Cresta representative raised his voice to speak once more. “What are we doing here?” The silence continued as the Cresta chair detached from its mooring and floated before the assembly. “Does no one here appreciate the irony that we are, in fact, holding a trial for a gun?” The chair slowly revolved as the Cresta looked at each of the delegates in turn. “Thousands of machines, robots, and androids were used on both sides of the late Oskilth Civil War. This particular gun,” The Cresta gestured with a free tentacle, “just happened to kill its targets more effectively than most.”

The android remained still, her mouth drawn in a hard line.

“No, the real reason we’re here is because the ringleaders of the war escaped, and now, like hatchlings, you stage an elaborate show, desperate to vent your frustrations on something.” The Cresta floated back, locking his chair in place, his tentacles wiggling smugly.

The courtroom erupted into roars; many in the assembly leaped to their feet.

“Bold words, coming from you who never suffered an invasion!” The Bhuac representative shimmered as he struggled to maintain his human form.

The Cresta snorted water through his breathing helm dismissively. “To be frank, I don’t care what you do with it. Let’s wipe its memories and be done with it.”

“Memories make us who we are! Wiping her memories is a death sentence.” Cerulean’s voice reflected stern determination in contrast to the discord all around.

“Order! Order!” The hard smack of the gavel echoed over the uproar. “Any further disturbance and this courtroom will be cleared!” The noise subsided as the judge’s sharp gaze scoured the room. “The fate of the accused will be decided by the jury at the proper time.”

“If I may speak before they adjourn?” Cerulean rose to his feet.

The Supreme Judge nodded.

“Thank you.” Cerulean’s chair floated before the assembly. He paused a moment. “Fellow beings, I have studied many different sentient races, my own included.” He looked down at the android, who continued to stare off into space.

“I believe that this being calling herself Justine Santana is both sentient and aware, although,” he raised his hand as the human delegate jumped to her feet, “I’m also aware that this is only my opinion. I believe that she was not fully responsible for her actions. My argument against the death sentence, or memory wipe, is not based on opinion, however.” His back straight, he gazed into the throng, his hands gripping the guard- rail. “Once destroyed, her memories are gone—forever beyond our reach.”

The Cresta representative’s tentacles gently caressed his bio-suit, his eyes fixed intently on the Luxonian, his tendrils wiggling thoughtfully.

“Who knows when, or how, the data stored in her brain could benefit one of us.” Bowing, Cerulean returned his chair to its original location.

No one in the massive courtroom noticed the subtle flicker in Justine’s eyes as she appraised the Luxonian before he sat down, storing his features in her data files.

Many of the delegates muttered and whispered, while expressions of indecision crossed their faces.

“If no one else has anything to say….” The Supreme Judge’s head swiveled, appraising the vast crowd. “No one? Very well—” she pointed to the assembly of six beings representing each race sitting at her left, “the jury may now adjourn.”

~~~

Justine sat alone in a Bothmal holding cell, lit only by a dim, red light. Her chains had not been removed, but they did not hinder her as she dabbed paint, faster than the eye could follow, on a bare, whiteboard.

With a hissing squeak a small, thickly barred window opened in the fat cell door.

“You.” Her hand continued to flicker over the whiteboard. She remained focused on her work.

“Yes, me.” The Luxonian tilted his head, peering down through the bars. “You draw?” He nodded at the rapidly filling canvas.

“Paint.” She tilted her head, lips pursed. “It helps pass the time. A cheap means to keep the prisoner quiet. You have the advantage. You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“Cerulean.”

“Thank you, Cerulean.”

“You’re thanking me for…?”

“I may be an unrepentant murderer, but I still appreciate those who aid me.” Her brush paused mid-stroke. “Your speech out there is the only reason they’re having any discussion about my fate at all.” Her brush continued to dance across the board.

“I read the full reports.”

“Really?”

“I was probably the only one to do so.”

Justine’s sigh was barely audible. “This trial was pure politics.”

Cerulean wrapped his fingers around the bars, tilting his head to view as much of Justine’s face as possible. “Your objective was to disable the troop carrier?”

She shrugged. “Yes.”

Cerulean’s voice rose slightly. “I’ve seen the carrier’s blueprints. Deck forty-two A and rooms thirty-two C and B were nowhere near the command room. I saw where you breached the ship. You doubled back and deliberately searched those rooms. Why?”

Justine smiled coldly, her hand moving a bit faster, the tip of the brush a blur. “Maybe I just like to kill.”

Cerulean pursed his lips. “Then why were troopers Alex and Jerrod left alive?”

Her mouth drew into a tight line. “Maybe I missed them. Maybe I thought they were already dead.”

“I read your specs. Enhanced senses, hearing, sight… You can hear a heartbeat from a hundred meters away.”

The brush moved faster.

“Trooper Jerrod thought it was a miracle that the escape pod managed to fire on autopilot.”

Justine’s mouth twisted into a mocking smile. “So, what’s your explanation?”

“You resent humans, hate them, and by extension their allies. You saw it as payback, didn’t you, as justice? But when you saw trooper Jerrod trying to stanch his comrade’s wound, even as he was bleeding out himself, you couldn’t bring yourself to press the trigger. Even though it went against orders, you lowered your gun.”

“A charming story. But why wasn’t that…story used to play to the court’s sympathy?” The brush tip filled in tiny details.

“Unlike the Cresta, I don’t see a gun. I don’t see a cold, calculating machine.” His voice softened. “I see a very scared woman who desperately wants to seem strong in her final moments.”

The brush froze. Justine’s head lowered, and for a second, the proud shoulders sagged. The moment passed as her head lifted again, a confident smile playing on her face. “Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She carefully laid the brush aside. “It’s finished. What do you think?” She displayed the panting in the crook of her arm.

His eyes widening, Cerulean stared into a portrait of himself, true to life on even the tiniest of hair ends. “It’s…beautifully done.”

“Thank you. Keep it.” She set the painting aside before making eye contact with Cerulean for the first time.

Cerulean swallowed a lump in his throat. “I don’t know what to say. I’m honored.”

“You can hang it on your wall or throw it in the trash. Whichever you prefer.” Justine rose. “Anything else?”

Cerulean stood thoughtfully before he shook his head. “No.”

“Then goodbye.”

Cerulean turned to go. He closed his eyes as a sudden wave of dizziness swept over him. Squaring his shoulders, he forced open his eyes and marched down the long, dim hall.

Justine called after him. “You know, if I had killed them and blown up the ship, there wouldn’t have been anything to identify me. I wouldn’t be here right now.” Justine’s voice echoed down the tunnel, her face and hands pressed against the bars. “No good deed goes unpunished, right?”

Cerulean stopped in midstride and looked back. “Everything we do has consequences. Alex and Jerrod are still alive.”

Silence.

“I hope you find happiness.” Justine’s fingers rubbed against the bars as the window slowly moved.

“You too.”

“Not likely.”

The window shut with a clang. Cerulean stood in the dim, red light, his hands clasped, his head bowed.

~~~

“This jury has found you guilty.” The Supreme Judge craned her neck.

Justine stood alone on the floating dock, her wrists and ankles bound with chains.

“Do you have anything to say?”

A mocking grin formed at the corners of Justine’s lips. “I regret nothing.”

“Very well.” The Supreme Judge frowned. “I will read your sentence. You are to be turned off, and your body will be locked in Bothmal Penal Internment forever or until such time as the information encrypted into your brain is deemed useful. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

Two security drones placed heavy hands on Justine’s shoulders and led her from the room.

One by one, the delegates filed out and the vast wings emptied. The courtroom grew dark as millions of holoscreens switched to yet another stream. Within a few days, the delegates and judge would relegate these memories to deep storage or utter forgetfulness.

~~~

Cerulean stood at the head of a large, metal table. He was the only one in the small, red-lit room that wasn’t a prisoner, guard, or a technician.

“You came.” Justine lay flat on the table. Large metal bands secured her legs, arms, and neck. She twisted her head slightly, smiling crookedly at Cerulean. “To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub…all my sins remembered.”

“Oldearth poetry?”

“A point well made. ‘To be or not to be….’”

Cerulean patted the helpless hand. “It’ll be…all right.”

A frown puckered Justine’s brow. “Being turned off isn’t like going to sleep, you know.” She turned away. “When a human sleeps, their mind is turning, working, dreaming. When a robot is turned off, its mind is completely inert. Dead.” She gazed fixedly ahead, her mouth set in a grim line.

Cerulean sucked in a breath. “But this way, there’s at least a chance…for you to…come back.”

“Thanks.”

A technician cleared his throat. “It’s time. Sorry.”

Justine’s fingers gripped the air, her hand opening and closing, her jaws clenched. Her voice became a whisper. “I’m… scared….”

Cerulean placed his hands on hers.

The technician swiped a bar on his datapad.

Cerulean watched Justine’s eyes widen and freeze, her mechanical body jerking against the restraints like a living thing. Her hand fell limp and no longer gripped his. His jaw clenched as he swallowed hard. “Goodbye, Justine.”

“Sir?” The technician looked up from his datapad, a puzzled frown on his face.

The table slid into a receiving hole in the wall.

“Nothing.” Cerulean turned away.

“It wasn’t human. Sir…?”

The door clanged behind Cerulean.

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” ~Lao Tzu

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Nine

No Doubt At All

—Lux—

Teal stared at a cluster of luminescent red blossoms in a field of yellow stalks and shook his head. Why? Who planted them didn’t bother him so much as why they planted them. He lifted his gaze and considered the expanse before him. A whole field of Calif, enough to feed the entire Luxonian capital, stretched out before him. Then, in one corner of the field, a bunch of unrelated red flowers—as unexpected as a fully armored Ingot in a Crestonian pool.

He bit his lip and started down the path that led back to the bustling city and Sterling’s high-rise. Loneliness enveloped him. In such a busy world, no one would even notice such an oddity. And if they did…no one would care to wonder why.

With his head bowed, he trudged along and hoped the suffocating ache in his heart would lighten and allow him a little breathing room.

~~~

Teal’s gaze flickered to the purple vine on the windowsill as he entered Sterling’s office. He froze. The effervescent fronds had grown to a mammoth size and fluttered in a gentle breeze. When he bypassed Sterling standing at his white oval desk and strode to the window, the plant seemed to wiggle its stalks in welcome. A tiny spark of joy kindled deep within him.

Sterling stopped at his side, nearly touching his elbow. “Oh look. She’s happy to see you. Waving like an old friend.”

Teal glanced aside at Sterling. Irritated or pleased? Irritated. Teal patted the fronds, shouldered his duty, and faced his superior. “You asked to see me, sir.”

“I had to. It’s been over three cycles, and you’ve hardly spoken to me.”

“There didn’t seem to be anything to discuss, sir.”

“Stop with the sir. I’m rising but not so high that you can’t talk to me without using a formal address to punctuate every sentence.”

“Yes, s—” Teal swallowed and peered at the frond. He could swear that it humped in indignation. “So, is there anything to discuss?”

“You need to go back to work.”

A lightning bolt of hope shot through Teal. “I can return to Earth?”

Sterling waved his hands as if terrified by hasty assumptions. “Now, don’t zip off just yet. I told you that this whole Crestonian cold war was a mere bluff, but even bluffs can have disastrous consequences if not treated respectfully. In order to settle matters to our satisfaction, we need a few friends on our side first.”

“Friends?”

“As in a certain Uanyi representative who just happens to enjoy OldEarth delicacies—delicious broiled vegetables with cracked wheat bread and virgin olive oil.” Sterling licked his lips, emphasizing his point.

An involuntary cringe curled inside Teal. “Uanyi are insectine, correct?”

Sterling waved a hand over his desk console and a holographic image of a large-chested, small-waisted Uanyi male dressed in a white one-piece bodysuit rotated on the surface before them. “They have rubbery exoskeletons and internal bones.” He leaned in, enlarged the face, and glanced at Teal. “How do you like those eye bulbs? Bigger than Cresta orbs aren’t they?”

“I can see why certain races use them in precautionary tales to scare their young into good behavior.” Teal envisioned a particularly gruesome large-eyed arachnid that tormented his dreams as a child. He shivered.

Sterling chuckled. “Those mandibles aren’t for eating people, my friend. They’re nearly all vegetarians, though some have adapted to a more varied diet. I’ve heard they’ve taken a liking to boiled sea urchins.”

Teal winced. “And the breathing mask?”

“After so many civil wars, they’ve nearly decimated their homeworld, certainly the air. So breathing masks are a part of everyday wear at home or off-planet.”

Teal flicked a glance at his superior. “So why are you show—?”

“Because I need you to go to Sectine and make friends with the Ultra High Command.”

“Why would they listen to me? I’m hardly an expert on their culture, and I have no associations with any of their kind.” Teal shrugged. “I don’t even know one word of their language.”

“Ah! Don’t worry about that. Despite their appearances, Uanyi are exceptionally bright and have a gift for communication. They’re highly proficient in every known language this side of the Divide.”

“Speaking of the—”

“We weren’t—so drop it. Focus, would you?”

Teal worked his way around the desk and returned to the window. He stared at the glorious Luxonian sunset. “I still don’t see how I’m going to convince them to work with us.”

“You probably won’t, but I’m sending Ark with you. He can be very persuasive.”

Rounding on Sterling, Teal stomped back to the desk, his mood rumbling like an active volcano. “He’s still on Lux?”

“You think he wants to return to Crestar for execution?” Sterling held Teal in a steely gaze.

Teal broke away first. “Fine. Ark and I’ll go to Sectine and try to negotiate an agreement. You have any idea of the conditions for this supposed treaty?”

Sterling tapped the console and drew up a holographic document image written in five languages. “Certainly. Zuri has it all written down and translated perfectly.”

“Zuri?”

“Only fitting, since you three were best buddies on Earth. Besides, he can represent Ingilum interests, and Ark can work in possible arrangements for Crestar that might allow him—one day—to live among his own kind again.”

“And Kelesta?

“The Bhuaci spy?”

“She wasn’t a spy…for long.”

Sterling chuckled and ambled away. “We’ll see about her…but in the meantime, let me tell you a little story.”

Teal squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his hands.

Sterling stepped to a desk drawer, opened it, and made a snipping sound.

Teal opened his eyes.

Waving a scissors, Sterling chuckled. “A few days ago, I went to the open-air Bhuaci music festival. I thought a little amusement after all that brouhaha with Crestar would do my circulatory system good.” He ambled to a large wall cabinet, flung open a large door, and started shuffling about, pulling red and green objects aside and shoving something decidedly pink to the back.

“I missed the first song, but the second…do you know what the gloriously handsome Bhuaci lead sang?”

Teal sighed and continued to watch Sterling’s haphazard trail through the cabinet.

“Well, it started…‘I woke up and my head was a mess, so I combed my hair. Then I felt my insides rumble, so I drank some Shang Slew.’” Sterling frowned like a seriously disturbed beverage authority. “Do you have any idea what Shag Slew will do to a person early in the morning?”

Teal swallowed back bile.

“I doubt he’d live to see the afternoon. Not sober and alert anyway. That stuff will muddle the mind no matter how carefully you try—” Sterling waved the thought away. “And then another singer started in. I couldn’t understand a word he said.”

Teal rubbed his forehead. “I can only pray that there’s a point—somewhere.”

“Ah-ha!” Sterling lifted a white pot from the cabinet and cradled it in his arms like a newborn. He grinned. “There’s always a point to my stories.” He strolled to the window. “Despite the absurdities, I couldn’t stop myself. I tapped my toes and swayed to the rhythm. I was taken in. Completely. I adored those singers.”

“But you hated the lyrics?”

“Every nonsensical word.”

Halting before the window, Sterling drew a small table close and placed the pot in the center. With precise movements, he cut a slender rectangle of dirt from the windowsill pot.

The purple plant practically stood up as its more- developed tendrils swung like enraged trees in a hurricane.

Alarm ripped through Teal’s body.

Sterling dug out tiny clusters of roots and gently nestled them in the bowl. He smiled like a loving father. “Sweet thing. But you’ve got to let your little ones go, so they can grow big like you.”

With a choking gasp, Teal peered at Sterling’s handiwork. “What are you doing?”

Sterling pressed the white pot into Teal’s hands. “It’s a parting gift.” He led Teal to the door. “Humanity will be fine while you go to Sectine and find a way to protect Earth from a universe they’re not ready for.”

“And the Bhuaci singers?”

“Oh, that. Yes.” Sterling swayed his hips and hummed. “Just remember, your words won’t convince an audience as much as your passion.”

~~~

Teal strode along the Sectine walkway with Ark on his left and Zuri on his right.

A brilliant orange sun hung in the pale green sky, without a cloud in sight. Huge reddish anthill-like buildings rose from the sand-colored environment.

Uanyi bustled from one establishment to another over well-trod roads, scampering on their long legs or using scooters that hovered just over the hard-packed surface.

Zuri wiped beaded sweat from his reddened face. “It’s dry, but the heat’s enough to kill me.”

Teal considered Zuri’s beautiful shoulder-length locks of blond hair, his ocean-blue eyes, and the mechanical outerwear ending in sandaled feet. “You’re still going forward with the return-to-nature scheme?”

Ark gurgled. “Kelesta convinced him to hold on to what technological advantages he has.” Ark peered around Zuri as he padded forward, his eyebrows wiggling, and his words laden with heavy emphasis. “Her entire family has a thing for mechanical exoskeletons.”

Teal snorted. “That’s so counterintuitive, I don’t even know where to start.”

Zuri shrugged. “She’s a good woman, working from home to convince the Regent of Song that Lux has a more sensible plan than Crestar. After all, quarantine only lasts as long as everyone obeys the rules. But without the mystery race in the game…there’s no telling.”

Teal sidestepped a mother Uanyi pushing an infant in a stroller. He glanced at the baby, frowned, and blinked back to Zuri. “So you and Kelesta are still together?”

Ark rolled his eyes. “Like stanzas of Bhuaci poetry.”

Zuri shoved Ark off the path and glanced at Teal. “You and Sienna?”

Teal picked up his pace. “Don’t ask.”

Zuri pulled a tottering Ark back onto the path and held his gaze.

Ark nodded.

Teal glanced from one to the other. “What?”

Zuri ducked his head and nudged Ark.

Wrapping his tentacles behind his back like a well- behaved pod, Ark shrugged. “Nothing. Especially. We’re just glad to be with you on this mission.”

Teal stopped and glared from the Cresta to the Ingot. “What?”

“Well, we happened to get a little, tiny—” Zuri pinched two slender fingers within millimeters of each other— “preview of the Uanyi representative we’re meeting today.”

“How’d you manage that? Sterling wouldn’t give me anything but her name. Jasmine. Of all the ridiculous—”

Ark slipped his tentacle around Teal’s arm. “You never know what’ll happen when you open negotiations. Things can get interesting. Very interesting, indeed.”

Exhaling a long, drawn-out sigh, Teal fell in step with his two friends. “With you two along, I’ve no doubt. No doubt at all.”

—The End—

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” ~Anais Nin

A New Novel Next Time…

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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