A Worthy Goal
The evening’s winter wind had settled to a mild breeze as Derik jogged hunch-shouldered at Faye’s side. Slugging his chilled hands deep into his coat pockets, he frowned at the memory of Faye’s unblushing impersonation of a guard, allowing her to affect his release. Though he towered above her slight form, her prancing step kept him lumbering along at a quicker pace than was comfortable for his Cresta-booted feet. Tripping over a clump of ice, he nearly sprawled onto the sidewalk.
Faye reached out and steadied him. “Don’t slip. I can’t change out in the open, so I wouldn’t be much help if you got hurt.”
Derik pulled his hands out of his pocket to maintain his balance and nodded. He darted a quick look at the little Bhuac. “You’re amazing. I still don’t understand how your race can be at risk. You just sprung me from the clutches of Governor Right! You could use the same tactics everywhere and no one could touch you.”
Faye glanced up at Derik’s large brown eyes. “Have you never yearned to be free—to be yourself? Freed from the secret bonds necessary to keep you safe?”
Derik shrugged. “Beyond my boots, I don’t have many protective bonds. In fact, if you hadn’t saved me from my last fall, even these boots wouldn’t have saved me.”
A curious half-smile played around Faye’s lips.
Derik grabbed her arm and pulled her under the shelter of a weeping willow. The long tendrils swept around them like a lacy curtain as busy pedestrians hurried by. “What? There’s something you’re not telling me.”
Faye’s almond-shaped eyes danced at Derik. “There is a great deal I’m not telling you. But to keep you happy and in the interest of building trust, I will share this particular incident.”
Derik wiggled his fingers like a child waiting for a ball to come his way.
“When I learned of your existence, I was quite interested to learn more about you, which meant I had to learn more about Taug. So, on occasion, I would investigate his laboratory. Not long ago, I became so perplexed by one of his experiments that I did not notice his return—until it was almost too late.”
Faye blushed a bright pink and covered her cheeks with her petite hands. “This is very embarrassing.”
Derik’s grin widened.
“I reacted on instinct. I don’t know why, exactly, but I changed into a small dog, one of those yapping little quadrupeds that like to chew and snarl at everything.”
Derik shook his head and snapped a weathered twig off the tree. “Wouldn’t have been my first choice.”
“Certainly. If I had been prepared or thinking clearly…but I was so concerned by what I saw that I lost all reasoning.”
“What did Taug do when he saw a mutt in his immaculate laboratory? Oh, I wish I had been there!”
Faye blushed harder. “He did what any irate scientist would do. He tried to shush me away. But I was annoyed and—” She dropped her gaze.
“You’ve come this far. Tell me everything.”
“I attacked his boots. I nearly shredded them before I ran away.”
Derik let out a yelp that turned heads. One passerby stopped and peered between the swaying branches. “You okay in there, little Miss?”
Derik cupped his hands over his laughter.
Faye smiled brightly at the concerned face and nodded like a six-year-old. “I’m fine. My dad’s having one of his spells. Just give him a minute. He’ll come out of it.”
The stranger grunted, dropped the trailing vine, and turned away.
In a formal manner, Derik took Faye by the arm. “All right, daughter, you and I have a mission to accomplish. Let’s go find Taug and free Justine. If he gives us any trouble, you can turn into a poodle and shred his bio-suit.
The cold, sterile laboratory appeared ashen in the dim light, echoing only dead silence as if it knew it had been abandoned and could not bear the truth.
Faye entered first, one thin-fingered hand lifted in front, probing for danger. Not a whisper or a swirl of movement responded to their approach.
Derik marched stiff and hunch-shouldered behind, ready for anything. Not ready for nothing. “I wish I had a Dustbuster.”
Faye halted and looked back at him. “Why? No one’s here.”
“One never knows when Taug’ll show up. Remember the incident with the boots? Besides, I’d dearly love to blast his equipment to smithereens. It would serve him right. Double-crossing me!”
Faye circled the empty room, tapping and touching various instruments. “He never lied to you, Derik. He told you that he might have to kill you. It wasn’t exactly his choice.”
Derik tromped over to the pool wall, splayed his fingers across the glass, and stared into the murky depths. “You sound like you sympathize with him…your enemy.”
Faye lifted the top off the dissection tube and shuddered. “I sympathize with all trapped beings. I know how it feels.”
Derik slapped his forehead. “You’re—”
The sound of someone clearing his throat made Faye and Derik freeze. Slowly the two turned in unison, like ballet dancers thawing from a deep frost.
Cerulean stepped over the threshold and folded his arms across his chest. “Honestly, I wasn’t expecting this.”
Taug groaned as he leaned against the hard, uncompromising transport chair, his tentacles limp at his side. He squeezed his eyes against the discomfort of the harness that kept him from sliding off the seat, while his ample middle bulged unceremoniously at droopy angles.
He choked out a ragged whisper. “I deplore space travel.”
Justine, sitting ramrod straight with her feet firmly set on the smooth floor, crossed her arms languidly over her unharnessed lap. “It could be worse. You could be traveling in the baggage compartment.”
A mere flicker of a glance indicated Taug’s awareness of Justine’s dry sense of humor.
Four other travelers sat strapped in their own ample seats. Two humans, well equipped with state-of-the-art headsets, tapped their datapads while their eyes scanned invisible screens. Two Crestas, younger and more robust than Taug, strained against their harnesses and leaned over to whisper to each other.
A loud buzz announced their entry into space and freed the occupants from their unnatural positions. The humans unbuckled and left without even glancing at the other passengers. The Crestas grunted with relief as they rose and passed into the passage. They studied a map highlighting the ship’s points of interest, including the dining section.
Tapping her thigh, Justine rose and ambled across the small space.
Fumbling with his straps, Taug’s grunts sharpened to disgust.
Unmoved, Justine faced him. “So tell me more about your planet…your people. What is the plan?”
Taug jerked fiercely at his strap, which nearly choked him. He gasped. “Get this damn thing off me, or you’ll be arriving with a dead body.”
Justine frowned but stepped forward. “Is that how you see yourself? I thought you considered yourself a scientist of the highest order, nothing less than a brilliant mind—”
“Hurry! I can’t breathe!”
Justine jerked the strap so that it loosened the clasp and pulled it free from Taug’s body. She stared down at the threadbare material. “Primitive. I wonder why they haven’t come up with something better.”
Taug staggered to his feet and wiggled his tentacles to reanimate his circulation. “The captain knows that the few travelers between Crestar and Newearth are either desperate or preoccupied. Humans don’t go to Crestar unless they are ordered there on business, and Cresta scientists would rather keep our monetary resources for our work. No incentive for comfortable seating.”
“But you like padded chairs and easy comforts.”
“I’m high enough in the food chain to be used to such things. But I like to appear before my superiors as an earnest scientist who happily endures simple hardships without complaint.” He flicked a grimaced smile at Justine. “You won’t give away my little secret, now, will you?”
Justine tilted her head and gestured toward the dining section. “We all have our secrets. How about you teach me the fundamentals of Crestonian cuisine? After all, I intend to be at the top of your food chain, and I’d hate to eat anyone out of order.”
As they settled into their dining booth, Taug waved a tentacle and alerted the host on duty.
A Cresta youth ambled over, looking eager to please, his golden eyes large and watery. “We’re honored to have you onboard, Taug. I’ve been told to offer you the best we have—” He bent down and whispered in an awestruck tone. “—no matter the cost.” His fleshy eyebrows wiggled to underscore the momentous news.
Taug glanced at Justine and then offered a rewarding smile to the young, obviously aspiring Cresta. “I’d like to introduce my protégé to our finest selection. How about we start with—”
As Taug gabbed on about Cresta food options, Justine scanned the dining room. The two other Crestas were bent over sloppy bowls of sticky goo, though they hardly seemed to be eating. She watched as they made every pretense of conversing and enjoying a good meal. She smirked. Apparently, Taug’s own kind didn’t trust him either.
The host practically skipped away.
Justine eyed Taug as he leaned back in the padded booth. Burns, rips, and more than one dent in the furnishings attested to the lack of luxury. But it would hold together for their quick trip. “Happy now?”
Taug closed his eyes and sighed. “Until landing, I’m free and I’ve ordered the finest meal available this side of the Divide. I always like to look on the sunny side.”
“Sunnyside? A rather human sentiment for a Cresta, isn’t it? You like to dive into deep water and surround yourselves with murky gloom.” As Taug did not respond, Justine laced her fingers together, propped her elbows on the table, and leaned in. “Tell me your plans so I know what to expect. I’m not particularly confident that we’ll meet a happy reception.”
Taug opened his eyes and let a lazy gaze rove over Justine. “Why are you worried? I politely informed Mitholie that I was bringing home a prize worth uncountable units.” Taug grinned. “Trust me, he’s waiting with bated breath.”
Justine pursed her lips in the direction of the two other Crestas. “So why did he send guards?”
Taug’s gaze rolled across the room. He shrugged. “I’m always watched. It’s part of the Cresta Code. Watch your back and watch everyone else too.”
“You’re not a very trusting race, are you?”
“Should we be? We value science, and we value advancement. We do not suffer fools.”
“So what am I? Besides a prize, I mean.” Justine’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not going to be experimented on?”
The host appeared with a large tray, which he set to the side. With skillful motions, he set the table with bowls, utensils, and drinks. Using padded mitts, he placed a steaming bowl in the center. “Watch yourselves now, it’s as hot as it looks, but the cook says it’s the best batch he’s made in eons.” With a sharp bow, the youth smiled, his eyes desperate for approval.
Taug accommodated the juvenile with a smile and a nod.
“I’ll check on the main course and be back shortly.” A quick turn sent the young Cresta on his way.
Taug delicately ladled soup into Justine’s bowl and handed it over. “Ah, I wish I were trying Samong for the first time with you. It’s a true delicacy.” He leaned in and whispered. “One of the ingredients is only found on a reclusive mountaintop. Though researchers have tried for years to duplicate it, they can’t get the subtle flavor that makes it so unique.”
Justine took a tentative sip. She shrugged. “It tastes a lot like the tomato soup that Cerulean makes.”
Taug sniffed the wafting aroma and grunted. “Cerulean! Don’t ruin my appetite.” He sipped from his spoon and hummed. “It is a good batch.”
Justine laid her spoon aside and folded her arms. “I have serious questions, none of which you are answering.”
Taug slurped another long draught, his shoulders relaxing. “I told you, Derik will be safe until your return. I offered Governor Right a deal she couldn’t resist.”
Justine’s eyes narrowed. “Such as?”
“She holds on to Derik, unharmed, until your return, and I’ll pass our android findings onto her—to do with as she wishes.”
“You’d do that? Give Newearth and that self-serving liar android—”
Taug lifted a tentacle. “You forget yourself. Remember, you’re serving your own interests as well. We all are.” He took another happy sip. “Besides, it’ll take her eons to decode it.” He leaned back and patted his stomach. “All you need to do is let a few select scientists study you—nothing invasive—and you’ll be free to return to Newearth under a new identity, collect Derik, and go wherever you wish.”
“You won’t need Derik—ever? You’re giving up your crossbreed studies completely?”
Taug grinned. “What do I need with a crossbreed when I have a much better alternative? An android with Cresta DNA will be a far more worthy goal. We’ll become like gods.”
Justine shoved her bowl away. “They will be, anyway…”
“Unless we learn to know ourselves, we run the danger of destroying ourselves.”
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