Long Past Trust
Justine stood in the middle of the pristine laboratory, analyzing Taug, her legs wide, her arms folded across her chest, and one eyebrow raised, marring her symmetrical face. She spoke with forced precision. “You-want-me-to-kidnap-Derik?”
Taug’s tentacles spread in acceptance. “You’ve accomplished far more difficult tasks. This shouldn’t prove much of a challenge.”
Justine swatted a mosquito on her arm and frowned. She darted a look from Taug to the sterile room and back to Taug. “Why?”
Taug slapped at the buzz of an insect in his ear. He waddled over to a small tank, lifted the lid, peered in, shook his head, and replaced it. “He hasn’t been answering my messages. The last time we spoke, I urged him to move in—”
“You want him to live in the lab? Why?” Justine squared her shoulders and unfolded her arms, fists ready for hand-to-hand combat.
Completely ignoring Justine, Taug’s eyes followed a buzzing insect around the room. “He might get hurt out in the open.”
Justine snatched the fly from the air and held it by the wing. It dangled, buzzing even more furiously. She pounded forward, staring Taug in the eye. “Tell me the truth.”
A tentacle flew at Justine. In a second, her legs were wrapped in a tight squeeze. Taug flipped her across the room.
Justine regained her footing and barreled forward, her head down in ramming position.
Taug’s body quivered on impact. He grabbed a tentacle-full of hair and pulled Justine’s head back so that she could see him. One tentacle held a Dustbuster while another tapped a small, black sphere on his belt.
Justine froze, her gaze fixed on the belt.
Taug shoved her back and gestured with the Dustbuster. “Stand by the wall.” He circled her as he held the weapon leveled at her chest. “When it comes to telling the truth, you’ve not been particularly forthcoming.” He nodded at the micro-recorder on his belt. “You’ve seen this before? I implanted a matching one on Derik; it looks like a mole on the back of his neck. I dare say he hasn’t noticed, but you have.” A snide grin slithered across his face. “With this little ear, I’ve heard every conversation he’s had. I must say, he’s not an original lover but at least he seems sincere.”
Justine’s jaw clenched, fitting her rock-like stance. “None of your business.”
Taug chided her with a waving tentacle. “Oh, but Derik is my business. As he is supposed to be yours. No good ever comes from mixing business with pleasure, I always say.” Taug aimed the Dustbuster as Justine’s hand quivered. “Don’t even think about it. I’m not a fool. It would only take one mark to have you disassembled for spare parts. My notes, available to every Cresta upon my death, would identify you as my murderer. Your memories are not so valuable so as to save you a second time.”
Justine threw back her head, defiant. “What do you want?”
“Retrieve Derik. I want him here, in my lab, tomorrow. And I want him to know that he needs to cooperate with me or—”
“You’re threatening me?”
Justine strode to the wall-tank and ran a finger across the glass. She stared into the murky depths with studious indifference. “What are you planning to do, long term?”
Taug lowered his tentacle, relaxing the Dustbuster against his side. “If it was necessary for you to know, I’d tell you, but it’s not. All you need to know is that his life depends on how efficiently you obey me.”
Justine’s splayed hand stiffened. “I’m your slave now?”
“The term slave involves the possibility of freedom; you don’t have that, so you are not a slave.”
Justine turned, her gaze frozen, and stepped toward Taug. “What am I, then?”
“You cold-blooded, inhumane—”
Taug chuckled, his bulbous eyes gleaming. “Trust me, being human isn’t quite as charming as it’s made out to be. I’ve had a lot of experience, and humans are often every bit as cold-blooded as a Cresta. The difference is that I work in accordance with my nature; therefore, I’m perfecting myself. Humans have no such hope.” Taug meandered past Justine toward the wall. “I’m going for a swim. Mention that to Derik. It’ll make your task a little easier.”
Justine strode to the door but before crossing the threshold, she stopped. She looked back at Taug. “And the insects? What are they for?”
Nodding in approval, Taug slid the Dustbuster back into a sleeve pocket. “I knew you’d ask. They are a part of my studies. Insects have some rather startling qualities that I might find useful.”
Justine grunted her agreement as she stalked out of the room. “You’d make a good insect yourself.”
Justine chopped carrots at lightning speed. Her fingers swept the assembly of other vegetables into a waiting pot, swiveled to the sink, and added water. Faster than a human eye could follow, she dropped in spices and a variety of mystery ingredients.
As the spicy aroma pervaded the room, Derik shuffled into the kitchen. He hugged her from behind and kissed her neck. “Hmmm, hmm, that smells good! How did you manage to put that together so quickly?”
Justine leaned back into the hug and reached behind to ruffle his thick hair. “I already had it prepared. I just needed to warm it up.”
“Gorgeous, intelligent, and a good cook. Is there another woman like you on the planet?”
Justine’s lopsided smile wavered. “Not likely.”
A ting sent her into her living room. Ivy stenciling meandered across the upper walls while baskets of hanging plants brightened the corners. Oldearth-style paintings hung strategically throughout the room. Justine ignored it all as she retrieved her datapad. Taug’s face rose into view. Justine slapped the datapad against her thigh as Derik ambled into the room.
Justine shook her head and flipped the pad over on her desk. “Just a reminder.” She stepped over to a wide couch and patted the seat next to her. “We need to talk.”
Derik grimaced. “Something important?”
Justine interpreted his expression and grinned winningly. “Not that kind of talk.”
“Ah, good!” Derik slid onto the couch beside her, one arm swinging up and around her shoulders.
She caressed one of his legs with hers. “I met a friend of yours, a Cresta named Taug.”
Derik jerked, but Justine held him back with a comforting touch. “Don’t worry. He told me everything. About you and his father. It was a relief, really. I knew there was something different about you, but I just never imagined—”
Derik closed his eyes and leaned back with a strangled sigh. “Why did he have to tell—you?”
“He cares about you.” Justine stroked Derik’s cheek. “For a Cresta, that’s a high compliment. He said he could help you adjust to all the changes. But you need to trust him.”
Derik opened his eyes and stared at Justine. “Did he tell you that he considered killing me?”
Justine shifted closer and breathed into his ear, stroking his cheek. Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “He told me everything. He needs you, and I want you to be happy.”
Tears brimming, Derik leaned forward. “I’m a mixed breed, illegal, and unwanted by every race in the universe. I should’ve had the courage to tell you. It’s been hell trying to hide my deformities, but I was afraid—”
Justine ran a finger across his lips. “Don’t. I have eyes; I already knew…some things. But it doesn’t bother me. The man I care about is on the inside. Not the shell on the outside.”
Derik’s delicate composure fractured. He dropped his face into his hands and sobbed. “I don’t deserve you.”
A twisted smile shadowed Justine’s face. “Maybe not. But you’ve got me just the same. And Taug. Question is, will you trust us?”
Derik wiped his eyes and leaned into Justine’s comforting embrace. “It’s gone long past trust.”
Derik removed the swimming mask from his face and pulled a large towel from a rack above his dripping bodysuit. The suit didn’t cover his Cresta anatomy, which allowed him to absorb the nutrients and experience the intoxicating sensation of revitalized Cresta skin. He had little to compare the sensation to, but he openly admitted that it was addictive. This month he had gone swimming with Taug nearly every day.
Taug donned his bio-suit in calm dignity. His eyes flickered over Derik’s human-Cresta body, and he pursed his puffy lips. He no longer shuddered at the sight of Derik’s anatomy. In fact, Derik wondered if he wasn’t just a bit jealous.
Derik had shown that he had the capacity to enjoy Cresta sensibilities with remarkable depth. Yet he also retained the ability to enjoy a fully functioning human body. Though Derik did have to wear bio-suits now, so did everyone in away. Even humans had to wear protective clothing.
As soon as they were dressed, Taug gestured Derik toward a round steel table piled high with instruments, standing in front of a wall of medical scanners. “It’s time.”
Derik shook his head. “I’m awfully tired. Couldn’t we skip it today? I mean, I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Taug rubbed one tentacle across his chin meditatively. “Yes, I’ve been thinking about that.” He padded across the room. “I’m concerned about you.”
Idly lifting one of the medical instruments, Derik peered at it closely. “Me? Why? You’re the only one I know who wants me dead, so I’m relatively safe, don’t you think?” Derik’s accompanying chuckle proved how far their relationship had developed.
Taug appeared to appreciate the joke and offered a thin smile in return. “True, but Newearth is still a dangerous place. Beings get injured all the time; they’re victims of a hundred crimes a day. You never know when something might happen.”
Derik thumped his chest. “No one is going to mess with me.” He wagged his finger playfully at Taug. “You’re in far more danger than I am.”
“That is another consideration.” Taug shuffled closer. “Derik, I’d like you to live here.”
The instrument dangled from Derik’s hand. “At a laboratory?”
“Don’t you live here?”
“I have a small room in the back, but I would install separate quarters for you, a nice apartment, better than what you have now. That way you won’t have to travel back and forth, and we can continue working—”
Slapping the instrument on the table, Derik pouted. “But I have a job and a life! I’m not just your pet project, you know. I have a relationship and my job is very—”
“Low paying. I could pay you five times as much.”
Derik shuffled across the room, curiosity getting the better of him. “You never offered to pay before.”
“I was still deciding.”
Stopping in mid-stride, Derik turned and unrolled a heart monitor from the wall. He darted a glance at Taug and twirled the tip between his fingers. “So if I take your offer, you’re certain you won’t kill me?”
Taug hesitated for just an instant. “Yes.”
Derik dropped the heart monitor. “I don’t know. I like your offer, but I need to think about it. I want to talk to Justine.” Derik smirked and tilted his head back, appraising the figure before him. “So, are you considered good looking, on Crestar, I mean?”
Taug wiggled, a humorous gleam in his eye. “I was what you would call ‘quite the catch.’ In fact, I had so many Crestar females asking to be my mate that my parents held an auction.”
Derik swallowed, his eyes bugging as he stumbled forward. “What? Your parents auctioned you off?”
Taug nearly fell backward in a spasm of delight. “No, no. You are such a hatchling! I forget. No, they auctioned for the female to be my prize.”
Derik rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand as if to wipe away a bad taste. “That’s sick! I thought males and females had equal status in your culture.”
Taug shook his head impatiently. “They do, but you misunderstand. Equal does not mean the same. We have rituals for mating and procreation, much like you humans. There was once something humans called the bride price, was there not?”
“In our barbaric past.”
“Perhaps, but for us, the bride price is not barbaric. It shows how much the family wants the match and the worth of the female. You can trust that we do not waste our families. Males, females, and hatchlings each have an important part to play in our culture, and we do not treat any of them as expendable.” Taug looked away.
Derik reached for the heart monitor again, as if clinging to a lifeline, and pulled it free of the wall. “But you’re scientists. You experiment on everyone. If you experiment, someone has to be expendable.”
Taug stood frozen. His gaze returned to Derik, appraising him anew. “It’s intriguing, the way you think. But still, you don’t understand. Science is our greatest good. To further science is the highest call, and therefore, no one is expendable.”
Derik shook his head and stepped to the door. It slid open automatically. “Well, for a while there, I was pretty expendable. Maybe I’m not now, but seeing how things can change, I’d rather keep my options open.” He trudged across the threshold.
Taug shuffled over, picked the heart monitor off the floor, and clutched it to his chest, his gaze never leaving the doorway.
“Ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.” Desmond Tutu
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