OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Five

We All Make Choices

—OldEarth—

Sienna watched Kelesta out of the corner of her eye as she stood at the control dashboard and tapped the directional sequence for planet Helm. “Would you stop pacing? I’m getting dizzy.”

Kelesta swung around, crossing her arms over her chest. “You don’t have to watch me like a hawk.”

“Not a hawk…more like an interested bystander.”

Clomping forward in oversized sandals, Kelesta shook her head. “Bystander? I hardly think that’s a fit description. Not after you zapped Teal and practically stole a place in the inner ring.”

With a shrug, Sienna stepped to the holograph pad and tapped in new coordinates. A swirling universe appeared before her eyes. She grinned. “I did get a nice view.” She peered aside. “I must say, Ishtar’s daring rivals Teal’s.”

“Teal would probably like to see you evaporate.”

“You mean disintegrate?” Sienna laughed. “He’s angry, but he’ll get over it, and Sterling was seriously impressed. I’ll have no problem getting sixth-year status now.”

“And I thought I was ambitious!” Kelesta stomped to the door. “At least when I use someone, I still care about them. I don’t knock them unconscious to get what I want.”

“Like you used Zuri?” Sienna licked her lips. “He told me all about your interest in his previous relationships and how you feigned personal interest, so he’d take you to observe Chai.”

“It wasn’t feigned! I actually like Zuri.”

“But you like Chai better.”

Narrowing her eyes, Kelesta marched to Sienna, flung her hands on her hips, and stared her in the eyes. “Chai wasn’t really Chai. He allowed himself to become used by a force he couldn’t control. We never actually encountered Chai…we only perceived a man wearing his skin.”

Sienna nodded. “I agree. Though he was a free man when he let it take him.” She swished the hologram around and pointed to a dark sector. “Not to change the subject, but our mysterious friends—the ones who nearly decimated Crestar—have been adding to their black hole.”

Kelesta frowned. “I’m not sure I’m done arguing with you about Zuri and Teal.”

The door swished open, and Sterling swept onto the bridge. “Ah, I thought I’d find you two here. Playing nice, I hope.”

Kelesta met Sienna’s gaze. She whispered under her breath. “I’m not done—”

Sienna waved the comment away and strode around the hologram. She beckoned Sterling forward. “I found something I believe you’ll find interesting, Judge Sterling.”

“Using formal titles, are we? Impressive.” He grinned. “Though I always find you impressive.”

“Except when you’re trying to kill her.”

Sterling flicked a glance at Kelesta. “Especially then.” He focused his attention on Sienna. “What are you so eager to show me?” He stepped closer but kept one hand raised in a defensive posture.

Startled but unwilling to lapse into rude curiosity, Sienna focused on the elongated black hole. “It’s growing. Getting longer.” She bit her lip. “If it keeps going at this rate, it’ll” —she tapped the console and the holographic image reshaped. Now the black hole appeared as a thick black line in space— “divide us from a large portion of the universe.”

“They must be on the other side.” Kelesta glanced at Sterling.

Sterling tilted his head. “Perceptive, my Bhuaci friend.” He glanced from one woman to the other. “I’ll call you Impressive and you Perceptive from now on, so I don’t get mixed up.” He peered at Sienna. “Promise not to stun me, so I can put my hand down?”

Sienna rolled her eyes.

Swinging his arm, Sterling gestured to the door. “Where’s Teal?”

“He’s avoiding me.”

“Wise man.”

“He’s a fool. I would’ve missed seeing the greatest exchange of wills since Arkolopus and Hugunt battled for supremacy on Ingilium.”

“A mere folk tale, nothing more.” Sterling frowned. “As a sixth-year, you should know better.” He strode around the hologram. “Besides, Teal was my choice for guardian on Earth.” He tapped the black hole, and his finger went right through it. “You overstepped the line, and I’m afraid there will have to be consequences.”

A hot flush burned Sienna’s face. “I did what I thought was best for all concerned!” She chortled in his face. “You know what Ungle would’ve done!”

Kelesta shook her head and stepped away. “Ungle was there. Well—as good as.” She tapped the console, and the universe vanished. In its place, the scene between Ishtar and Chai replayed in all its fire-lit glory.

“Zuri informed Ungle when we arrived on the scene, and the wise Cresta insisted on a direct feed.” A grin brightened Kelesta’s eyes. “Zuri’s good about that kind of thing—set it up so no one was the wiser. They thought we were prisoners along with all the rest.”

Sterling snorted. “No one followed directions. You were supposed to watch Amin.”

The door swished open, and Zuri stepped in. He peered from Sienna to Sterling, and then his gaze wandered to Kelesta. With a smile, his attention flickered to the holographic image. “Like it?” He strode forward and waved a hand. “Saved for further study. Ungle’s idea—”

A ka-boom blasted eardrums and fragments of the door exploded through the air. Zuri dropped to the ground, pulling Kelesta with him. Sterling toppled over. Sienna crouched under the main console.

Ark stood in the broken doorway with a Dustbuster held limply in one tentacle, his bulbous eyes huge and frightened.

A gray cloud of dust and tiny debris floated through the air, and a sharp stench curled up Sienna’s nose. Swallowing her disgust, she crawled to Sterling who lay face down on the floor and placed her hand on his back. “Are you—?”

Sterling lifted his head. “Alive…for the moment.” He peered back, and Sienna followed his gaze.

Zuri had thrown himself over Kelesta, protecting her. They both stirred.

Sienna snorted, rose, and wiped her hands on her long dress. “So he does care.”

Sterling stomped toward Ark and snatched the Dustbuster from his tentacle. “What are you doing?”

Ark shuffled forward, his head hanging low. “Ungle ordered me to. He wants you all dead before the sun sets.”

Choking, Sienna yanked the Dustbuster from Sterling’s grip and pointed it at Ark. “Why?”

Ark lifted his tentacles helplessly. “I wasn’t aiming to kill. I shot high so as to make it look good. Though, I’m sure Ungle is monitoring us…” His gaze swiveled around the deck.

Zuri scrambled to the main console, and his fingers flew over the board. He glanced up. “Not anymore!” Crossing his arms, he glared at Ark. “You mind telling us why Ungle wants to kill us…especially after we fulfilled his every request?”

Sterling glanced at Zuri. “I suspect that’s exactly why.” He returned his attention to Ark. “He got what he wanted, and now he’d like to clear the planet of unnecessary elements—perhaps?”

Shuffling to a wide chair, Ark plopped down and dropped his tentacles in his lap. “Truth is, we’re at war.”

His eyes widening, Zuri stepped forward and leaned in toward Ark. “Crestar is at war with—?”

“Ingilium and Lux.” He glanced at Kelesta. “Sorry, the Cresta Ingal do not consider the Bhuaci a sufficient threat to declare war on them. Though if you interfere…they may change their minds.”

Sienna gripped the railing that led to the upper deck. “If we’re at war…then you’re” —she clenched her jaw— “the enemy.”

Sterling stepped between Sienna and Ark. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wish Teal were here.”

“I am.” Taking each step slowly and deliberately, Teal descended to the central floor. “I’ve seen everything.”

Heat worked over Sienna’s body, and she glowed at the edges. “I wondered where you’d got to.”

Sterling cleared his throat as he glanced from her to Teal. “You could’ve warned us about Ark and his dramatic entrance.” He turned and peered at Ark. “I read Ungle’s transmission. You’re a master liar.”

Ark bowed as if accepting a compliment.

Zuri tapped his fingers together nervously. “So are we really at war with Crestar?”

Sterling nodded. “Crestar has sent out a formal declaration that all foreign elements are to leave Earth immediately or be eliminated.”

Sienna flashed a frown at Ark. “Crestonians are as foreign as the rest of us.”

Sterling waved his hands. “That’s beside the point. What Ungle hopes to achieve is more to our interest.”

Ark sighed. “He was severely disappointed with Ishtar— and Chai for that matter. He was hoping that Ishtar would destroy the thing that controlled Chai. But Ishtar not only ignored it, he appeared to grieve the loss of a thoroughly despicable man.”

Zuri wrapped an arm around Kelesta and leaned on the wall, pulling her close. “What did he think Ishtar would do? He doesn’t have a Dustbuster or advanced weapons. Obviously, a force that strong couldn’t be destroyed through primitive means.”

As Kelesta nestled comfortably in Zuri’s embrace, she frowned at Ark. “Bhuaci may not be a match for Crestonians, but we’ll see the annexation of this planet as an act of aggression and fight to maintain our interest here.”

Ark pointed to the hologram. “If you’d be so kind, refigure that thing to focus on the growing Divide between us and our mystery friends.”

Sienna tapped the console and brought up the same image she had used earlier. “It’s still growing.”

“That’s what frightened Ungle and our entire planet into a panic.” Ark rose with a groan. “I don’t agree that abandoning Earth will save us from the evil that beset Chai and almost destroyed Ishtar. That same force can bedevil the heart of every being this side of the Divide…and perhaps the other side as well.”

Sienna shook her head. “So what are we going to do?”

Sterling stepped to the blasted door—nothing more than a ragged frame. “I need to discuss the matter with the Supreme Judges.” He peered from Sienna to Teal. “Make ready to leave as soon as possible.”

Zuri glanced from Sterling to Ark. “You aren’t going to take your enemy as a hostage?”

Sterling grinned. “I don’t see an enemy, do you?” He started to step through the door and shook his head. “By every star in Heaven, I almost forgot…never mind.” With a flick of his hand, he flashed out of sight.

Kelesta peered up at Zuri. “What are you going to do?”

Zuri caressed her cheek and peered into her eyes. “I’m going to do my duty and report home.” His thumb ran under her chin. “Just like you’re going to do when you return to Helm.”

Kelesta’s voice rose in panic. “You’re going to leave me?”

Teal cleared his throat. “Could you two have that discussion somewhere else?”

Sienna glanced at Teal. “We could be having the same discussion.”

Teal shook his head. “No. We couldn’t.” He nudged Ark. “You’ll have to return to Lux with me. I hardly think your misfire today will go unnoticed.”

Zuri glanced over. “We’ll bring Kelesta to Helm first and then swing by Lux and drop you two off before I head home.”

Like a body blow, Sienna suddenly understood what the term heartbreak meant. Her mouth dropped open. “You mean you’re not going to forgive and forget? Like Ishtar? Like Aram and all your wonderful human heroes?”

Teal frowned. “Forgiving doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to reality. I hold no animosity toward you. I just can’t trust you.” He turned away and nodded to Zuri. “I’ll study the Divide phenomena on the upper deck. Call me if you need anything.” He turned and ascended the steps.

Zuri took Kelesta’s hand and led her through the blasted doorway. “We’re going to be—”

Ark waved them on. “I don’t need the details.”

Sienna watched Teal’s booted feet disappear on the upper landing. She plunked down on a chair before the main console.

Ark reached out and wrapped a tentacle around her shoulder. “We all make choices.”

Sienna blinked, her heart falling to the ground. “Apparently, I’ve made mine.

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Nine

An Honest Weakness

Zuri stood on the hilltop and inhaled a deep breath of air, then exhaled slowly. Exhilaration spread through his limbs. Happiness? Joy? Ecstasy? He couldn’t define the emotions soaring like twittering birds through his body. He peered at his tanned, slender fingers. Though they weren’t nearly as strong without the mechanical gloves, their sensitivity sent shivers of delight to his brain. He wiggled his toes and shrugged. Not much joy there. Couldn’t have everything.

Kelesta sauntered close and wrapped her arm around his waist. “The boy is home now, reunited with his papa, so why don’t we do something interesting?”

Peering down at the petite human form, beguiling but deceptive, an image of his previous mate passed through his mind. Jeni used to ask innocent questions when she wanted something. Zuri narrowed his eyes, focusing his lenses. Peering through the human façade, he stared right into the Bhuaci essence.

Kelesta flared and swung away. “If you’re going to take x-rays…you should ask permission first.”

A hot blush worked up into his cheeks. “Sorry. It’s an Ingot defense mechanism.”

“You’re afraid of me?” Kelesta slapped her hand on her chest in exaggerated shock, her eyes unnaturally wide.

“Not afraid…just—” He turned away from Ishtar’s village and stomped down the hill. “After Jeni chose another, I always wonder what she wanted from me in the first place.”

Practically dancing alongside, Kelesta flung her arms out wide like a butterfly, each nimble foot bouncing from one spot to the next. “She’s the one who wanted you to go primitive, right?”

“She said she wanted me to experience life without all the mechanical hindrances. Talked a lot about freedom and unique personal expression.”

“So you do it, and she dumps you?” Kelesta shook her head. “Some beings are brutally cruel.” She glanced aside. “But you’re left rather naked, aren’t you?”

Slipping his datapad from his arm holster, Zuri tapped the keypad. “Turns out, she was doing research. She wanted to gain a position at the Ingoti Magisterium Laboratory. Quite a leap for a fourth tier.”

“So, you were attracted to her mind?”

Zuri frowned as he scanned the area. “No. Her mother was actually a reject that slipped through the system but managed to make good by inventing a better detector so other rejects would be caught at an earlier stage.” He pointed north. “Chai is that way.”

Her mouth hanging open, Kelesta stood frozen a moment before she leapt ahead and grabbed Zuri’s arm. “But then she’d be killing others like herself…the ones who might prove the system wrong!”

Zuri nodded. “That’s why I found her fascinating.” Turning, he stomped northward.

Kelesta crossed her arms high on her chest and scowled as she marched at Zuri’s side. “But you still liked her?”

“Not in the least. Fascination is a different experience altogether.” He slapped an insect on his neck and wrinkled his nose. “Though I do enjoy the myriad of skin sensations and the exhilaration of freedom from certain mechanical bio-ware, I must admit, coverage had definite advantages. ”He held a dead wasp by the wing. “Stings hurt.”

Kelesta stopped short. “So why did you stay with her?”

Halting, Zuri took another scan of the area. “Choose her as a mate, you mean?” He glanced at the flat horizon. “You don’t understand Ingoti culture. Since we are conceived and developed in laboratories, we don’t consider relationships to be anything more than temporary arrangements for emotional, psychological, and physical pleasure.” He snorted. “It’s not like I needed her. Or she needed me. Except…as a test specimen for her lab experiment.”

“You used each other?” Kelesta swallowed and started forward, her gaze sweeping the ground.

Zuri shook his head and paced after her. “Yes. And I don’t see why you’re upset.” He gripped her arm, coming to a standstill. “You’re using me right now.”

Kelesta jerked her arm away, fury flooding her glinting eyes. “How dare you!”

Zuri lifted his arms to the sky beseechingly. “May the Magisterium send me home this very day if I’m wrong. But—” he peered down and zeroed in on Kelesta. “But aren’t you using me to get to Chai? Isn’t that what Ungle asked you to do?”

A hawk soared overhead, and Kelesta followed it with her eyes. “Originally, yes. But I told Sienna the truth. I told everyone the truth. I was being used to get information because I was desperate to protect my people.”

Zuri glanced at his datapad and pointed. “Chai isn’t far.” He shrugged. “When I scanned you, I saw your heightened energy levels. You’re hiding something.”

Kelesta dropped her head onto her chest and closed her eyes. “You’re right.” She peered up and met his gaze. “Even if I tried to explain, you wouldn’t understand.” She sniffed and tapped his naked hand. “Even without all your filters, I wonder if you can ever really love anyone.” She started forward. “Come on! Let’s go study a man possessed by demons.”

~~~

Ark wiped a tear from his eye.

Sitting on a rock ledge, Sterling glanced at the Cresta beside him and slapped his forehead. “If I’d known you were so emotional, I would’ve taken the Ingot. He may have a fascination with children, but at least he can hold himself together at a family reunion.”

Wringing his tentacles in his lap, Ark felt like a chastened pod. “I just didn’t think he had it in him…to be so repentant.” He sighed, his shoulders slumping. “It takes courage to ask for forgiveness.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

Ark lumbered to his booted feet, a flash of enlightenment clearing his weary brain. “That may be quite significant!” Waddling down the stony path, he sniffed the air. “There’s water near, and I’m desperate for a dunk.” He peered at Sterling. “I believe a swim would do us both good.”

“Luxonians hardly need—”

A sudden strong wind swirled around them, choking the air with thick dust.

Ark gripped Sterling to keep him upright.

When the air cleared, the two stood frozen, covered in dirt, appearing like mere ghosts of their former selves.

Sterling cleared his throat and wiped grime from his eyes. “Where’s that pool you mentioned?”

~~~

Sterling dropped the second boot and watched Ark lumber into a murky green pool surrounded by tall boulders and flimsy grass stems. He wiped his slimy hands on his tunic and stared at the water. I couldn’t possibly. It’s much too disgusting. Besides, I can just as easily—

“Hurry up! It’s glorious. Don’t be frightened of innocent liquids.” Ark splashed a tentacle as he swished from one end of the pond to the other, flipping like an Ingoti eel at each turn.

Thinks I lack courage—eh? Blast him! Taking short, determined breaths, Sterling tiptoed into the water. He winced at the slimy green surface and wrinkled his nose. “Don’t take offense if I just bathe my toes.” He fingered his long tunic and robe. “I’m hardly dressed for full immersion.”

“Toss your robe next to my boots and slip in!” Ark giggled, watching Sterling’s every move. “You’ll regret being a coward when I tell Teal that you stayed on the edge like a frightened—”

“Oh, shut up!” Sterling flung his robe aside, pinched his nose, and dove into the pond.

Ark rose, his tentacles on his thick middle, his eyes wide, watching bubbles surface.

More bubbles surfaced.

Ark frowned. His tentacles wiggled at his sides.

More bubbles.

Ark’s bulbous eyes widened.

The pond stilled, the surface smoothing to reflect the sky.

Ark took a step and leaned forward, anxiety riding like ridges over his skin.

Sterling broke the surface, laughing. Genuine amusement cascaded throughout his whole body. He stared at Ark’s open mouth. “I saw everything! You were worried about me, poor dear.”

Falling backward and paddling with his arms, Ark maneuvered to the other side. “Was not.”

Sterling stood and wagged a wet finger at Ark, drops of water cascading before him. “Oh, please. For all your talk of courage and cowards, you certainly refrain from admitting an honest weakness.”

Ark banked against the sandy shore and sat up. “What weakness?”

Sloshing out of the pond, water plants trailing behind, Sterling padded to a smooth boulder. He sat down, letting the water drip onto the sand. “I’m not nearly as obtuse as you think me, Cresta.”

Ark leaned back and folded his tentacles over his ample stomach. “Tell me.”

“You think that Ishtar’s strength lies in his ability to humble himself.” Sterling shrugged. “From Teal’s early reports, there does seem to be a pattern.”

Ark’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Sterling.

Sterling clasped his hands together and stared at a flock of birds soaring across the sky. “When Ishtar accepted Eoban’s assistance, he broke free from his father’s stranglehold. When he accepted Pele’s witness, he found the strength to fight the giants.”

Ark nodded. He glanced at the whirl of birds and frowned.

“But when his pride was hurt, and he accepted the glory of wealth and a woman who offered an escape from shame, he fell into madness.”

The birds flew away, becoming mere specks in an endless horizon.

Ark rose and shook himself free of pond plants. “I admire your perception.” He waddled closer and crouched by his boots. Snatching them up, he padded to Sterling. “But that’s not what I meant by courage.”

Sterling stared at the offered boots, pursing his lips, disgust rising from his middle. “What then?”

“When Ishtar met Matalah, he met a new father figure. He could’ve rejected the very idea. After what he’d been through, I wouldn’t have blamed him.” He dropped the boots at Sterling’s feet. “But he accepted Matalah’s kindness and, as we’ve seen, returned to his own sons.” Lifting one of his four-toed feet, Ark balanced himself by gripping Sterling’s shoulder. “It takes great courage to trust again…to risk caring. To allow oneself to be helped…to love and be loved.”

Lifting his gaze, Sterling met Ark’s golden eyes. He swallowed. “By the Divide, you’ve got me beat, Cresta.”

~~~

Teal crouched low in the tall grass and swore under his breath. He fixed his gaze on Obed as he stumbled at the end of a long line of prisoners. Teal turned to Sienna, who crouched next to him and pointed north. “Go and follow Eoban’s trail. See if he found the child and made it home.”

Sienna glanced from the ragged throng of slaves to the marching warriors and beyond to the stalwart figure leading the assembly. She hissed. “I don’t remember pledging obedience to you.”

“Remember your promise to Sterling?” He peered into her eyes. “You told him that you’d do whatever it took to become the best healer Lux has ever known.”

“To do that, I need to stay close to Chai—not chase after a fool who thinks he can save his people through daring exploits.”

“Eoban isn’t that shallow.”

Sienna stared at Teal, widening her eyes alarmingly.

“All right, maybe he is—sometimes. But he’s also brave and resilient. And he knows a thing or two about dealing with injuries and healing emotional wounds. There is a great deal you could learn from him.”

“What I need to learn, only Chai can teach me.”

His colors flaring, Teal bit off his words. “How to succumb to evil?”

“How evil holds a person in its grip.” Sienna shook her head. “Luxonians were once very sheltered. You know what exposure to the outer world has cost us. We’re losing our traditions, our values, our political framework—even our fertility.”

Teal dropped his gaze.

Clasping his hand, Sienna shifted closer. “You’re one of the last of the old guard, a Luxonian with ambition but without guile. You’re so honest, I don’t think you’re capable of seeing Chai and the power that rules him for what they really are.”

“But you can?”

“Let’s just say that I’m more ambitious than you.”

Teal shook his head. “I’m not about to let you get one step closer to that monster. Even Sterling fears the power it wields.”

Sienna sucked in a deep breath. “Have it your way.” She nodded decisively. “Someone should check on Eoban, and someone must keep an eye on Chai.”

Relief surged through Teal’s body, surprising him. He stood and pointed south. “Eoban knows his way around. He probably brought the boy home already. Start at the grassland village and work backward if you have to. If they’re there, stay and wait for me.”

Sienna clasped her hands and winked away.

Teal turned and faced Chai. He took two paces before searing pain crashed into his skull and blackness took him.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ~Ernest Hemingway

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Three

—OldEarth—

Intercept Course

Teal leapt over a boulder, scrambled up a rocky incline, and frowned at a loud gasp behind him. He peered over his shoulder.

Sterling lay sprawled on the ground like a broken toy.

Turning on his heel, Teal doubled backed, lifted Sterling by the arms, and dragged him to the shelter of an overhanging cliff. He dropped the ragged figure in the shade without ceremony and fell on his knees, heaving gasps of air.

Sterling sat up and rocked back and forth like a frightened child. “I can’t do this anymore. I really will disintegrate.”

Falling back on his haunches, Teal leaned on the shaded rock face, his heart pounding, his mind frozen. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Never.”

Sterling lay spread-eagle and sucked in deep draughts of air. “For once…I can write an interesting report…and I won’t…have to embellish…a bit of it.” He shook his head. His white hair splayed in the dust. “Too bad…it’ll be my last.”

Disgusted, Teal spared him a glance.

Rising with a groan, Sterling sat up, heaved a deep cleansing breath, and clapped his hands free of dirt and pebbles. “We’re not going any further with this study.” He shook his finger at the stone city in the distance. “You saw its power. Bothmal! It could’ve eaten us!”

Clasping his hands steeple-style before his face, Teal stared into the distance. “I don’t think it could sense us as clearly as we could sense it. Certainly, the guards only saw us as men…not Luxonians. I doubt it could know—”

“By all that is good and holy, I’m not about to find out what it knows.” Climbing to his feet, Sterling ran his hand over his hair and smoothed down his rumbled rags. “You saw them…once they lost the chance to toss Obed into that pit, their eyes fixed right on yours truly.” He tapped his chest. “I would’ve become nothing more than an evening snack for that beast.”

Teal rose with a grunt. “Surely, it would’ve spit you out.”

Glaring, Sterling huffed and squared his shoulders. He shimmered and reappeared in his immaculate white tunic and leggings.

Leaning forward, Teal surveyed their desert surroundings. “No one followed. All’s clear.” He glanced back. “We can leave and meet up with the others— Luxonian-style of course.”

Sterling’s eyes drooped to half-mast. “I wasn’t about to tip-toe over that blasted desert.” He shook himself. “I still can’t believe I saw an honest-to-goodness demon.”

A flush worked over Teal’s face. “Honest-to-goodness? You’re delirious. Besides, we don’t even understand what humans mean by a demon. It’s a catch-all term to explain any terrify—”

“Annihilate! Do you deny that fiend was anything but what humans refer to as a demon?”

Startled, Teal drew back. He ran his fingers through his ruffled hair. “I’ll never understand you—sir.” He met Sterling’s gaze. “I thought you considered humans little more than barbarians.”

“Even barbarians can be right sometimes. They happen to be right about demons.”

Rubbing his chin, Teal considered the rock ceiling.

“How would you define it? Spirit energy? Light force? Dark matter? An unreported—?”

“Oh, it’s been reported—by almost every race in the universe. Demons may have different names and come in various forms, but they all inflict the same horror and spread the same destruction.” He shuddered. “You and I wouldn’t have disintegrated exactly—we would’ve become subservient to it. Slaves. Dead to ourselves and all free people.”

Teal closed his eyes. “I’m glad Obed escaped.”

Sterling bobbed his head up and down. “I’m glad we escaped!” He stepped forward. “I’m going to recommend that a quarantine be placed around this planet as soon as possible.”

Teal gripped Sterling’s arm. “But humanity isn’t demonic!”

“You saw those men. They are serving it innocent victims every pitiless day.”

Pounding into the light, Teal faced the sun. “But not all humanity does so. Some people resist evil.” He glared at Sterling. “You said it yourself, Obed escaped. And Ishtar escaped.” He exhaled and folded his arms. “Ungle has a point. We have to find Ishtar and watch what happens when he meets Chai.”

Sterling snorted. “So we can see him get devoured?” He curled his lips in obvious distaste. “I thought blood-sports disgusted you.”

Teal stepped up the rocky incline and pointed west. “As much as any decent being. We can’t defeat evil, but at least we can learn from those who resist it.”

~~~

Ark stood at the ship’s helm and hid a spreading grin behind a well-placed tentacle. A bubble of enjoyment tickled his insides as he watched the drama unfold before his eyes.

Zuri swaggered on deck, explaining with chest-thumping pride each and every instrument panel.

Kelesta practically purred, her eyes glued to Zuri’s every move.

Sienna stood near the open bay door, frowning. “Sterling and Teal should return any moment.” She glanced at Ark. “Are you quite done?”

Ark cleared his throat, sending bubbles to the surface of his breathing helm. “Oh, yes!” He turned and offered a generous smile. “Young love—I could watch all day and never get bored.”

Sienna’s gaze shifted to Zuri, roving from his spiked blond hair to his sandaled four-toed feet. “He almost appears human now.”

Ark snorted. “That’s the idea…or rather to look more Old-World Ingoti.”

Sienna crossed her arms and glared at Ark. “So are you going to tell me—or do I have to guess?”

“Zuri’s lady friend likes her mates au-naturale.”

“Zuri has a mate?” Sienna’s gaze darted to Kelesta.

Unconcerned, Ark waved a tentacle. “I don’t suppose it’s terribly serious, considering how much time he spends away.”

Pursing her lips, Sienna frowned. “Some people are faithful no matter the distance.”

A bright light blinked, and Sterling appeared in the middle of the deck with Teal standing behind him.

Zuri turned sharply, and Kelesta tripped, gripping his arm for support.

Without ceremony, Teal glanced around. His eyes stopped on Zuri, and he stepped forward. “Where’s Ishtar?”

With a by-your-leave grin, Zuri slipped from Kelesta’s grasp and met Teal in the middle of the deck. “He saw the ravages of Chai’s conquests and is hurrying home. Why? What’s happened?”

Sterling sauntered closer and shrugged. “We met a demon from hell.”

Everyone froze.

Ark giggled and flipped a tentacle over his breathing helm, a flush working up his face. “Sorry. Such a blatantly vivid image—”

Teal stomped to an instrument panel and scanned the surface. “Hardly a laughing matter.” He glanced at Zuri.

Zuri padded to the central computer and tapped the surface. A holographic image appeared in the middle of the room.

In colorful detail, Ishtar appeared to be working his way around the coast of a large lake.

Zuri peered up. “He’s near home. The women have hidden in caves. He might run into them or someone from his clan soon.”

Ark shuffled closer, rubbing two tentacles together. “Bet that’ll be fun.”

Teal swallowed. “Where’s Chai?”

Zuri tapped the console again, his slender fingers flying over the flat surface.

A holographic image showed Chai leading a large band of warriors, with a ragged line of slaves struggling behind, north of Ishtar’s position.

Zuri faced Teal. “They’re on an intercept course.”

Sterling leaned forward scowling. “Who’s that coming up behind Chai?”

Teal slapped his forehead. “Oh, the fools. That’s Eoban, Barak, and Obed.”

Ark frowned, his lips pursed into flabby tubes. “They have no idea what they’re about to run into.”

The image blurred, and Teal shouted at Zuri. “What’re you doing?”

Zuri shrugged. “I want to know what happened to the boy—Ishtar’s son.”

Ark snorted.

Zuri tilted his head, his eyes wide. “What? So I have a soft spot for children.”

The image refocused on Amin. Sweat poured down his thin face as he struggled through a thick forest, brushing thorns and vines out of his path.

Sienna blinked and shook her head. “Poor thing.”

Kelesta squinted at the scene. “There’s something following him.”

Ark, turning green, glanced away. “I can’t watch.”

Sterling snarled at Ark. “You’re a Cresta scientist—you dissect specimens all the time.”

“After they’ve died!” Ark swiveled about, his tentacles flying in all directions. “Get it through your Luxonian filters—Crestas have to study everything. It’s what we do. How we survive. But that hardly makes us cold-hearted.”

Teal tapped his fingers together. “Can we debate this another time?” He turned to Zuri. “Want to split up?”

Kelesta’s eyes widened as she wiggled next to the Ingot.

Zuri peered down at her hope-filled eyes and rubbed his beardless chin. “Fine. We’ll follow Amin.”

Teal swiveled toward Ark. “Take Sterling and keep an eye on Ishtar.”

Ark grinned, his golden eyes gleaming. “It’ll be my pleasure!”

Sterling raised his hand. “When—exactly—did I get demoted?”

Scowling, Teal turned away. “You’re doing what Ungle asked—keeping an eye on Ishtar. There’s no other place for you to be.”

Sienna sauntered over to Teal and wrapped her arm around his. “And we’ll follow the three fools?”

Teal shook his head. “They barely escaped the temple demon, and now they’re bumbling right into Chai.” He exhaled. “I can only pity them.”

Ark stood back and appraised the gathering. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from humans…”

All eyes fixed on the Crestonian.

Ark grinned. “Nothing ever goes as planned.”

Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.~ PRISON CHAPLAIN, A Clockwork Orange

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Seven

—Lux—

Boiling Lava Rocks

Sienna studied a large hologram rotating before her. Rainbow-colored disks spread across the universe. She tapped the console and squinted. One sector magnified a thousand percent, rolling closer like a storm. She bit her lip and tapped the magnify button again and again. Beyond the Divide! Where are you?

A chime rang.

Sienna frowned and turned. “Come in, Kelesta.”

The door slid open and the Bhuaci clerk ambled in, a smile wreathing her petite face. “Any success?”

Sienna shook her head. “They’re gone…as if they never existed.”

Her lips puckering in a childish pout, Kelesta stopped at Sienna’s side. “They’re just hiding.” She waved a languid hand. “They can’t hide forever. At some point, their curiosity will get the better of them, and they’ll expose themselves to us…or to someone.”

A doubt shivered through Sienna. Her gaze slid over to her friend. “Have they shown themselves to you recently?”

Her body stiffening, Kelesta frowned. “Not really. The one who contacted me originally pretended to be human…an old man. I knew, of course.”

“And why did he contact you?”

“He said he needed help.”

Sienna waited.

“He knew we needed help.”

Pacing away, Sienna crossed her arms. “An exchange of assistance?”

“We would be each other’s ears and eyes.”

Sienna turned, her anger building. “And were you?”

Kelesta sighed. “I told Sterling—I told you all—the truth. I thought they were going to protect us…that was the arrangement.”

“So you haven’t had any contact with them—lately?”

Kelesta crossed her arms, her body enlarged and hardened, and a menacing scowl rolling over her face. “No! And I’m not looking to contact them.” She reverted to her former petite shape. Sidestepping Sienna, she wandered around the revolving hologram. “There’s only one way to keep an eye on such a powerful enemy.”

Sienna’s eyes followed the Bhuaci. She titled her head. “How?”

“Let them keep an eye on us.” She arrived at Sienna’s left and tapped the console. The universe dissolved and reappeared with Earth in the center. “Let’s return and discover what it is about humans that fascinates Ungle and the Ingilium so much.”

“Crestas are obsessed with science, and Ingots only care about trade.”

“More than that…” Kelesta grinned and cast a side- glance at Sienna. “Besides, I’d like to understand Zuri better.” She licked her lips. “He’s unlike any Ingot I’ve ever met.”

A hot flush worked up Sienna’s cheeks. “You’re interested in Zuri?”

Kelesta straightened her tunic and tugged at the collar. “Professionally. Certainly. The more I understand our enemies…the safer the Bhuaci will be.”

With a shrug, Sienna turned toward the door. “Teal seems to trust him.” She stopped. “But Teal wants me to bring information about the mystery race—”

Kelesta nudged her forward. “And you will. Once we get back to Earth and discover what all the fuss is about.”

—OldEarth—

Teal, dressed in a patched, sleeveless shirt and gray leggings, stood on the brow of the hill and glanced back at Ark and Zuri. “You two, stay here. I’m going in.”

Ark blinked as sweat dripped down the side of his face. “Is that wise?”

Zuri scratched his short blond hair. “You look human enough, but up close…someone might notice differences.”

“No one ever has before.” Teal peered around. “Where’s Sterling?”

Ark glanced at Zuri.

Zuri shuffled his feet. “He’s with Ungle.” He pointed to a rocky outcropping. “But I don’t think Ungle—”

Glowing at the edges, Teal frowned. “I’m tired of tiptoeing around that Cresta’s sensibilities.”

His eyes alarmingly wide, Ark waved a tentacle. “You may not want to get irritated in front of humans…you’re glowing—”

In an instant, Teal returned to his human state—sans the bright outline. He stomped to the enormous boulders.

Sterling sat on a jagged ledge, his hands clasped like a contrite child.

Ungle paced before him, waving his tentacles. “Lux cannot afford to indulge—”

Teal clambered the rest of the way up the incline and glared at Ungle.

Ungle stared back. “This was a private discussion.”

Pointing to the stone city below, Teal shrugged. “I don’t think they care.”

His jaw rotating and bubbles rising, Ungle hissed through his breather helm. “Bothmal was created for such—”

Teal threw up his hands. “Please. No threats. No lectures.” He turned and faced Sterling with his hands perched on his hips. “If we’re going to learn anything useful, we’d better get down there—now.”

Sterling blinked like a mystified child. “We?”

Rubbing his neck, Teal kept his eyes fixed on Sterling, dearly wishing he could knock him backward with the force of his gaze. “It’ll be a lot easier to pass myself off as a merchant if I have a slave to sell.”

Jerking to his feet, Sterling choked. “A slave!” His whole body shimmered. “I never!”

Rejecting Sterling’s idiocy, Teal stomped over to Ungle and leaned in close to Ungle’s watery orbs. “Do you—or do you not—want to learn about Chai?”

A grin slid over Ungle’s face. Wrapping a tentacle around Sterling’s shoulder, he led him to the brow of the hill overlooking the city. “If there’s a Luxonian alive that can take us beyond murky waters into clear pools, I believe it’s you, Sterling.”

Sterling’s shoulders slumped. With a long shuddering sigh, he shrunk and shriveled, losing stature and weight. His clothes dissolved into mere rags and his gorgeous locks of hair turned stringy-brown, matted with dirt and lice.”

Ungle stepped back hastily, flipping his tentacles out of reach.

Teal frowned. “Don’t overdo it. Lose the lice. I want to sell you not drown you.”

Grinning, Ungle waddled down the hill and turned toward Zuri and Ark at the bottom. He waved a tentacle in salute. “I’m returning home, so you’ll be on your own.” He glanced at Sterling. “I want details, Sterling. Colorful details!” He passed Zuri, who stood frowning and merely patted Ark on the shoulder.

Ark called. “Leaving so soon?”

Ungle chuckled as he headed to the hills. “Mission accomplished!”

Teal nudged Sterling toward the city. “Ours has just begun.”

~~~

Zuri scanned through his datapad, scowling in the bright afternoon light.

Ark flopped down and poured a green liquid into his breather Helm. “By the Divide, I hate waiting.” He glanced over to Zuri. “What’s wrong?” He nudged Zuri. “I thought you’d be thrilled. Sienna’s gone. Ungle’s gone. Granted, we still have to deal with Sterling, but he’ll leave as soon as this temple business is taken care of.”

Zuri’s gaze stayed fixed on the datapad. He rubbed his hand over his short hair. “Oh, blast!”

Ark frowned. “Naughty girlfriend?”

Zuri glanced over. “She liked the picture I sent.” He wiggled his eyebrows and pointed to his head.

Ark licked his lips. “That’s good, right?”

Zuri sighed. “Now she wants to see my hands.”

Tentacles flying to his face, Ark looked every millimeter the blushing, scandalized matron of every-world. “What next I wonder? Your…do we dare think it?” His voice lowered as he leaned in, his gaze dropping to Zuri’s mechanical boots.

Zuri dropped the datapad aside. “This could go places I’m not really prepared—”

A shuffling noise stiffened them both into statuesque poses and complete silence.

A goat trotted forward, sniffed, and bolted back the way it had come.

Ark thrust a tentacle over his chest. “That was too close.”

Crouching, Zuri scrambled to the outcropping and peered over the edge. In the distance, three children and a flock of goats ambled in their direction. “Boiling lava rocks!”

Ark edged closer. “Please, no ugly images.” He peered over the edge. “They’re between us and the cave.”

“Bet they bring those quadrupeds up here for the season and use that cave for…” His eyes widening, Zuri scrambled for his datapad.

Ark peered at him. “What’re you—?”

“Creating a diversion.”

An explosion blasted from inside the cave.

Screaming, the children darted down the hill with the goats close at their heels.

Crouching over, Zuri skedaddled for the cave entrance.

Ark lumbered behind, huffing, his gaze searching the perimeter. When he stopped next to Zuri just inside the cave, he patted his chest as if to keep his organs safely inside. “I’m a scientist…not an explorer. I tried to tell them.” He glanced at Zuri. “Teal would never’ve made that mistake. We were just sitting out there for all the world— ”

Zuri clambered to his ship, pressed the datapad, and waited while the hatch fell open. “I’ve been distracted.” He climbed the ramp and huffed. “What’s your excuse?”

Ark padded behind. “Touchy, aren’t we? Just because your girlfriend wants to see you au natural—it isn’t any reason to—”

On the main deck, Zuri turned and faced Ark. “I can handle that. One article of bio-ware at a time.” He shifted into the helm’s seat.

“What then?”

“Sienna’s coming back…and she’s bringing her Bhuaci friend.”

“Boiling lava rocks!”

“Like I said.”

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” ~Aristotle

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Sixteen

—OldEarth—

Your Intensity Disturbs Me

Ark crouched over Ungle’s sprawled, green-splattered body and checked for life signs. One of Ungle’s tentacles ended in messy pulp. Ark snatched a tube from a bag slung over his shoulder and tore off the seal. Lifting Ungle’s unconscious head from the ground, Ark pulled on the breather helm and carefully poured the murky green liquid into the repository.

Standing beside Ark, Teal peered down at the scene, tense and waiting. Nearby, Zuri paced before a large boulder next to a winding stream. Sterling sat limply on the boulder, his head propped in his hands, looking sick and weak.

With a jerk and a snort, Ungle’s eyes fluttered open. He stared at Ark, a puzzled frown rippling across his face. “What’re—” Wincing in pain, he writhed, groaned, and lifted his injured tentacle. His eyes widened in obvious disbelief. “How—?”

Glancing aside, Ark barked an order at Zuri. “Get that medical kit you always carry around.”

Zuri froze, peering at Ark. “It’s for Ingots, not Crestas.” Glancing at the writhing tentacle, he shook his head and swallowed. “But I’ve got a decent sickbay onboard. Let’s go.” He glanced at Teal. “It’s not far, hidden in a cave.”

Ark backed out of the way as Zuri and Teal lifted Ungle’s body and half-led, half-carried him over the stream to a large cave.

Sterling followed, his head bowed and his hands clasped behind his back.

Snug in the cave, the ship gleamed like an oval blue-black jewel. The dripping walls housed colonies of bats and lichen. A few stalactites hung from the ceiling on the right, while broken stems showed where the ship had barreled through.

After tapping a key code, Zuri stood aside and the shiny bay door rose from the cave floor. A bright shaft of light directed their steps to the interior.

Once inside the Ingot ship, Zuri pointed to a small niche in the rear. A reclining chair with armrests embedded with wires, tubes, and assorted medical gear stood prominently in the center. A large console with three colored panels arched from the left wall.

Zuri adjusted the seat, and he and Teal dropped Ungle in place, directing his tentacles to the side and laying the injured limb on a rolling side table. Zuri waved Ark to the console. “It’s set up for Ingots, but there are overrides so it can be adjusted for the needs of other species. He glanced at Teal. “Though, I don’t know if we’ve ever used it on a Cresta before.”

Ark nodded, his gaze sweeping over the instrument panel. “I’ll make do.” He glanced up with a wavering smile. “We scientists are ingenious at this sort of thing.” He locked eyes with Zuri. “Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as it seems. Our tentacles grow back.”

Zuri closed his eyes and exhaled a long breath. “Yes, of course. I should’ve remembered.”

Teal strode up and peered at Ungle’s closed eyes. “I think he’s out again.”

Ark nodded. “Certainly hope so. I gave him enough painkiller to knock out the entire Cambial Zoo.” He rubbed two tentacles together and scanned the console. “I’ll just trim off the nasty bit, and in a few days, he’ll feel as good as new, though a little off-balance until it grows out again.”

Sterling plopped down on a swivel chair near the front and called back. “So, you want to explain what happened?” Zuri ran a hand over his gleaming helmet and sighed. “I didn’t know what he was doing. At first, I just figured he was another Cresta scout…odd after everything, but then I’m not always kept informed of changes. Still, he was out of order.”

Ark glanced up.

Frowning, Teal stepped over to Zuri, his hands on his hips. “So you blasted him? Why?”

“He kept shooting at birds. I couldn’t understand what he was doing. But then I remembered that your friend, the cute little Luxonian, liked to transform into an eagle—”

Ark dropped the scalpel, and it clattered onto the tray. “Oh blast!”

Teal pounded the wall console with his fist and the bay door slid open.

Sterling jogged forward. “Wait! You don’t even know if he actually hit her or where—”

Teal swung around, his eyes glowing in rage. “Then where is she?”

Sterling clutched his arm. “I’ll come with you.”

Teal shook Sterling away. “Not likely. You’ll only slow me down.” He swung out the door and charged into the glaring sunshine.

With an explosive huff, Zuri slapped his hand against his thigh. He glanced back at Ark. “I’ll go. You stay and keep an eye on these two.” His gaze swiveled from Ungle to Teal. “We’ve had enough accidents this cycle.”

Ark retrieved his scalpel and started trimming. “I’d say.”

~~~

Teal lifted Sienna’s limp body off the dusty ground and followed Zuri back to the ship.

As the two crossed over the threshold, Ark closed his eyes and muttered a long slew of Crestonian curse words.

Sweat poured down Teal’s face as he stumbled forward.

Sterling jumped in to assist.

Zuri jogged to the right and pointed. “Here’s another pullout chair—for emergencies.” He gripped a red handle and yanked it down. A smaller version of the chair Ungle occupied unfolded from the wall.

Cradling Sienna, Teal laid her down and brushed strands of hair from her face. “I don’t see any injury, but she won’t wake up.”

Sterling placed his hand on her forehead, closed his eyes, and frowned in concentration. With a long exhaling breath, he opened his eyes. “She’s still alive.” He nodded while his gaze rolled over her. “It’s good instinct to maintain the shape of your host environment.” He glanced at Teal. “She’s clever; I’ll give her that. Most would’ve panicked—but she knew it would be safest to appear human if she was injured and couldn’t travel.”

Teal glanced over at Ungle’s slumped form. “Is he going to live?”

Sitting in a padded chair against the wall, Ark waved a tentacle in droopy-eyed weariness. “Of course. It’s not a life-threatening procedure, just rather painful.” He yawned. “And tedious.”

Zuri fell into a chair on the opposite wall. “My body can take almost anything but—by the Divide—I’m emotionally exhausted.”

Sterling glanced at Teal. “Go pace around the ship or something. Your intensity disturbs me.”

Teal stalked over to Ungle and glared at his sleeping form. “I ought to kill him.”

Ark leaped to his feet. “Oh, no, you don’t! Not after I just spent worthy corpuscles keeping him alive.”

Zuri’s eyebrows rose.

Ark puckered his lips. “I had to give him a transfusion—to counteract the shock.” He blinked. “We’re a brilliant race but not terribly resilient.”

Teal nudged Ungle’s shoulder. “Wake up, Cresta. I have questions you need to answer.”

A long, drawn-out sigh from across the room turned their heads. Sienna whimpered and shivered.

Teal raced across the room and gripped her hand. “Sienna?”

Sterling stepped out of the way.

Her eyes blinking open, Sienna swallowed and opened her mouth to speak. No sound came. She frowned.

Sterling shrugged and glanced at Teal. “She’ll be fine. She had a hard landing but no serious injury. She’ll mend.”

A rush of relief flooded Teal as he caressed her hand.

“You understand, Sienna? You’ll be all right.”

Sienna stared at Teal as if she had no idea who he was, her puzzled frown etching deeper into her forehead.

Sterling laid his hand on her forehead and whispered under his breath.

Sienna closed her eyes, and her head fell gently to the side. “Let her rest. She’ll tell us what happened when she’s feeling better.”

Teal glared at Sterling. “I want answers—now.”

Ungle’s ragged voice rose like a cracked flute. “And you shall have them.”

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
~Voltaire

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Ten

 

—Planet Lux—

Legitimate Concerns

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it beyond Teal to an ornamental box hanging outside his open apartment window. “By the Divide. You don’t honestly believe that I’d want to go to that barren wasteland you describe in your reports?”

Shoving loose soil aside, Sterling nestled the plant roots in a wide hole. “Why, I’d rather be eaten alive by Crestonian dissection maggots.”

He patted the dirt around the plant stem and laid the vine runners across the box so they dangled artistically. “At least they do their work quickly and leave you in peace when they’re done.” Holding his hands out like a surgeon ready to perform surgery, Sterling marched across his living room and slapped a wall panel with his elbow.

A glossy white sink and accompanying faucet emerged from the wall. He waved his dirty hands under the faucet.

Nothing happened.

Sterling glanced at Teal.

Teal tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips. Sterling swung his gaze from Teal to his hands and whined. “You could help, you know.”

Marching across the room, Teal slapped the wall console. Hard.

High-pressure water rushed from the faucet and nearly cut Sterling’s hands from his wrists.

“Aw! Damn it, Teal. You want me to go to that hideous planet, but you nearly maim me first.” Sterling eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched a blue-green oval fruit from a bowl on an end table and chomped. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressuring everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around Zuri too much. I’m beginning to notice a resemblance.” He waved his hand in a circular fashion before his face. “Especially around the eyes. You’re glaring like he does.”

Teal finished chewing and swallowed. “I’m not glaring. I just made a simple request.”

Sterling returned to the window box and peered at the transplant.

The vine lay limp, wilting before his eyes. How very depressing.

Teal stepped up and eyed the pathetic foliage. “I think you need to water it.”

Sterling glanced at the high-pressure sink and bit his lip. A chime sounded.

Teal and Sterling turned to the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged.

“Come in.” He glanced at the vine. “I’m not doing anything…worthwhile.”

With an eye roll, Teal swept a tall, square glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

The door slid open and Ark ambled in. He waved a tentacle. “You called?”

Teal watered the vine, waited, and then faced Ark.

Ark eyed the glass, his brows rising, a smile quivering on his thick lips. “Having liquids, are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched to the liquor cabinet and pulled down three glasses. “Let me guess. The Ingot is on his way.”

Ark eyed Sterling’s actions with obvious interest and sidled closer. “Actually, he’s still on Earth.” Twining two tentacles over his middle like an abashed student before his learned master, Ark glanced at Teal. “He’s keeping an eye on Ishtar. And taking copious notes, I hope.”

Teal chuckled. “And taking a few ore samples, if I know him.”

Sterling lifted two full glasses and strolled across the porcelain tile flooring to Ark. “Here, you can have these since the Ingot isn’t coming.”

Teal stepped closer and extended his hand. “You aren’t having one, sir?”

Sterling swiped the last glass off the counter and poured himself a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out. You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there” —he nodded toward a vessel on the counter— “that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “They do have feet—don’t they?”

Ark poured both drinks into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal who placed the water glass in the sink, pointedly ignoring the swill.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed back his drink in one swallow. He closed his eyes. Picture the sea. Calm waves rolling on the shore. He held the moment and then, opening his eyes, he peered ahead. “So, Teal, why did you come today and invite your nice friend?”

Teal strode to the window and peered at the now bright and swaying purple vine. He grinned. When he faced Sterling, his smile vanished. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

Sterling shook his head and marched directly to the cabinet. “I can think of many reasons why…but not who.” He turned around swinging his empty glass in the air. “I hope you don’t suspect me?”

Ark’s golden eyes rounded on Teal. “Or me.”

Teal rubbed the back of his neck. “Neither of you.” He glanced out the window and sighed. “I might be mistaken. Someone might be trying to kill Zuri. But someone is definitely—”

Ark choked. “I left him alone on the planet!” He huffed sending bubbles through his breather helm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s not alone. Sienna is watching him. From a discreet distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter, his composure cracking. His imaginary rolling waves rose to pounding surf. “Do you mean to tell me that you have Sienna watching Zuri who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I want the three of us to return to Earth, undetected, and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

Ark tapped Teal on the shoulder and imitated his whisper. “Don’t bother. I already know.”

Sterling froze. His body actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot’s afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his empty pot, yanked it off the shelf, hefted it to the wall disposal unit, and dumped it down a shoot. He clapped his hands free of every blasted particle of dirt. “Personally, I think Teal needs a vacation. He’s getting paranoid.”

Ark glanced from Teal to Sterling and wrapped all four tentacles around his thick waist. “How did you know we’re focusing on Ishtar?”

Freezing, Sterling felt his chest tighten. I can’t actually have a heart attack. It’s impossible. This body is a facsimile— He glanced at Teal.

Teal stared him into the ground.

If that were possible.

“Oh, bloody Bothmal!” After pacing across the room to an arrangement of plush chairs and a couch, Sterling plunked down on the sofa and stretched out. “Mind if I collapse? It’s been a long cycle.”

Teal sauntered over and perched on the arm of a chair opposite his superior.

Ark plodded to a slightly wider chair and squished into place. He stared at Sterling. “Ungle?”

Teal frowned. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark waved the question away. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Rubbing his brow, Sterling realized that he felt completely drained. Maybe I’m not suited to this line of work. “Can’t I just say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark snorted.

With a grim expression, Teal slipped onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

As if ready for his analyst session, Sterling lay back, crossed his feet, and placed his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb in this position. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth.”

Bright sunlight filtered through the window and the purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. A spicy scent wafted through the air.

Teal’s voice seemed to echo across a vast distance. “From Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers together and relaxed, seeping like a puddle into the ground. “Yes. This mystery race has surprising abilities. They engineer new life forms, terraform entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While we Luxonians and our sometime-allies have our own unique abilities, these beings can do everything we can— but better—with more flare.”

Ark harrumphed.

“Truth is…they’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbowroom. We’ve only discovered a few pockets of their kind. The ones your people irritated” —he swiveled a glance at Ark— “must’ve been rather high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep Earth in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark speared Teal with a frown and nodded to Sterling. “Go on.”

“Ungle believes that their race is obsessed with the nature of good and evil. So, he wants to learn everything they do…and more. Apparently, your studies caught his attention. He wants to know more about Ishtar and someone called Chai.”

Teal jerked to his feet and paced across the room. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

Ark’s head swiveled from Sterling to Teal. “Evil like Ishtar?”

Freezing, Teal glared at Ark. “Ishtar isn’t evil. He’s just—”

Sterling lifted his head. “How about his father, Neb? You called him evil.”

“I can’t debate that now. I want to know why Ungle wants to kill me. Or Zuri. We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed, swung his legs off the couch, and sat up. “He isn’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they really are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants your work to continue—” His pink cheeks blanched as he sat bolt upright. “Uh-oh.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark’s shoulder.

“What?”

“Ungle doesn’t want you to become distracted by anything…or anyone.”

“Zuri is annoying, but he’s not a distraction. He’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. His throat felt very dry. “Not Zuri. Sienna. He wants her to leave the planet—quietly.” He swallowed. “I tried every argument I could think of.”

Teal’s gaze fixed on Sterling. “Then?”

“I tried to arrange a little accident. So, she’d go home.”

“A little accident? I was nearly crushed by a boulder, my food was poisoned, and that wasn’t a natural lightning strike.”

“She’s Luxonian. She would’ve survived.” He scowled at Teal. “It wasn’t your dinner by the way—it was hers.”

Teal leapt at Sterling, grabbing him by the neck.

Ark sprang forward. Slapping Teal’s hands off Sterling’s neck with three tentacles, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Glaring, Teal jerked away and spat his words. “How could you? Sienna is completely innocent. I thought we trusted each other.” He squared his shoulders. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark shoved them further away from each other and glanced from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand. Ungle has a very persuasive nature. He can make a person’s life remarkably challenging. He’s quite capable of creating an interstellar incident and making it appear that a certain judge” —his eyebrows wigged in Sterling’s direction— “is long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that Ungle wouldn’t be far behind.”

Ark laughed. “Perhaps. But our Crestonian leadership has legitimate concerns. This mystery race will dictate the Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened as his voice rose. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put your planet in the dark?”

Sterling collapsed on the couch. “Oh, God. I really will have a heart attack.”

Teal shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “Not possible. Though, I rather wish…”

Sterling peered at Teal. “All right! I should’ve told you. Ungle’s talk of good and evil…a life of heaven or hell. I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna seemed like child’s play. An easy way to keep an ally happy.”

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

Sterling groaned. “I’ll have to go to Earth now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in various directions, clearly facing an impossible reality. “How will I ever keep you all in line?”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment.”

Teal glanced at Ark. “At least Zuri and Sienna are safe.”

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

“Ungle warned me that if I failed, he’d take care of the matter himself.”

Teal groaned.

With a long huff, bubbles swarmed through Ark’s breather helm.

Sterling stood and pressed Teal’s shoulder, meeting his gaze. “Sienna is safe. Really.” His eyes wandered to the purple vine; it appeared to be waving goodbye.

Oh hell.“

~~~

Trust starts with truth and ends with truth.” – Santosh Kalwar

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Four

Teal peered into Sienna’s eyes as they lay on a grassy plain before a mighty cliff. A hot sun beat down on them from a clear sky. Propped on his arms and knees, he hovered over the length of her body.

Sienna waited, grinning.

Teal lowered himself.

A flash of fear rippled over Sienna’s face.

With a groan, Teal tipped his head back and plopped onto the grass beside her, sprawling out like a broken toy.

Sienna jerked up, pouting. “What’s wrong?”

Teal rubbed his eyes. “You still don’t trust me.”

Yanking herself to her feet, Sienna brushed grass and dirt from her tan leggings. Her long-sleeved tunic rippled to the ground. “You don’t trust me—rather.”

Rolling to his side, Teal peered at her. “I’d like to. By all that is good and holy, I want to.” Rising, he slapped dry stems from his gray tunic.

Sienna’s lips quivered.

Exhaling a long breath, Teal stepped closer and caressed her arms. He tilted his head to meet her downturned gaze. “I’ve never wanted a woman as much as I want you.”

Swallowing and batting back tears, Sienna shook her head. “I’ve never been this—”

Teal quirked a smile. “Vulnerable?” Impulsively, he pulled her into a tight embrace and tucked her head under his chin. “Me too.” He ran his fingers over her hair, across her shoulder, down her arm to her waist…and forced his trembling hand to stop. He lifted his eyes to the setting sun. “We’re in the midst of an interplanetary struggle. No one knows who to trust or what to believe.”

Sienna sniffed and pulled away. “You seem ready enough to trust that Crestonian and Ingot.”

“They’re Crestonians and Ingots. I know their true nature and their peoples’ hopes for this world.”

Snorting, Sienna turned her back on Teal. “Then you can’t trust them at all.”

With a chuckle, Teal glanced aside and froze.

A ragged figure, bent forward, scrabbled down a steep incline, grasping at rocks and tough weeds to keep from sliding.

Teal exhaled a low breath. “Ishtar?”

Racing to his side, Sienna followed his gaze. She clutched his arm. “How’d he get here? It’s well beyond—”

Suppressing even the hint of panic, Teal swiveled around and surveyed the area. With a grunt, he grabbed Sienna’s hand and gestured with his chin. “Over there, under that rocky ledge.”

They scampered forward and hid in the deep shadows.

Ishtar scrambled to the bottom of the incline and turned aside. He padded on bleeding feet toward the desert.

Sienna frowned. “Where’s he going? There’s nothing on the other side but barren lands. He’ll die there.”

Teal stepped out from under the stony ledge and peered at the emaciated figure striding purposefully away. “He’s pursued.”

Sienna’s eyes widened as she glanced around. “By whom?” Snatching up a rock, she crouched for battle. “Can they see us?”

“No. And we can’t see them. But they are here nonetheless.”

With a snort, Sienna tossed the rock to the side. “You’re a regular Bhuaci with all your riddles.”

Teal watched Ishtar stumble. I should’ve seen this coming. A stabbing pain tore through his chest. “We need to return.” He glanced at the sky. “Officially, I shouldn’t even be here without Zuri and Ark. Luxonian Guardians should respect our own treaties.”

Sienna huffed and crossed her arms. “It was your idea. Don’t blame me if—”

“Don’t start.” Teal pulled her closer.

Relenting, Sienna placed her hands on his chest and started rubbing in slow circles.

Teal peered down, clasped one of her hands, and examined it. “Never any jewelry. Why?”

With a teasing grin, Sienna slipped away. “I don’t need any. My mother taught me that a woman is enough in herself. My father agreed.” Her gaze softened. “He used to bring me autumn flowers. Said that beauty is fleeting.”

Teal glanced back to where Ishtar had rounded the rocky crevice, his voice dry and distant even to his own ears. “You believe that?”

“Of course. If something lasts—we don’t appreciate it.”

Teal locked his eyes with hers. “I disagree. Beauty is eternal. It’s our gaze that is fleeting.”

~~~

Ark sat on a log next to a rippling stream and slapped his fleshy, three-toed feet into the flowing water. He shivered in delight.

Zuri crouched on a boulder, his black bio-armor including headgear, bodysuit, and hard-toed boots, glinted in the bright sun. As he hunched over a handheld screen, his gaze scrolled over a data-stream.

Ark scratched his neck. “By all rights, we shouldn’t even be here without Teal. Cresta Accords are nothing to splash at, especially when they’re backed up by a Luxonian treaty and your Ingoti Magisterium’s seal of approval.”

With a grunt, Zuri scrunched his face and peered closer to the screen. “You gonna tell him?”

“Ahhh!” Ark swung his dripping toes from the water and dropped them on the end of the log, tipping backward precariously. Using two tentacles for support, he leaned further back and stretched out, pillowing his head on two other tentacles. “Perhaps I shall. I really feel I must. After all, he’s our friend. We don’t want to break trust with him.”

Zuri peered at Ark, grimacing. “Friend? What makes you think he’s our friend? He never believes anything we tell him. He always checks our data after the fact. And he reports every bloody word we say.”

“As do I. As do you.” Ark lifted his head and glanced at Zuri’s bent figure. “There’s more to friendship than trust, you know.”

The datapad slipped from Zuri’s grasp and dropped to the ground. “Blast!” He scowled at Ark. “You want to explain what your idea of friendship entails, exactly?”

“Endurance.” Ark groaned and rolled to a sitting position. “No Cresta worth his cranium capacity would ever bother with trust. We’re not like that.” He waved a tentacle in the dim light. “You’ve been reading too many memes on the Inter-Alien bulletin board.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m suspicious of everyone.”

“Even yourself—I hope.”

Zuri smirked. “I just told Teal where we are.” He strode to Ark and stared down at his limp figure. “I contacted him as soon as we arrived and told him that you wanted to follow up on Ishtar.” His eyebrows rose. “How do you like that—friend?”

Ark shifted aside, pulled one of his boots forward, and wagged it at Zuri. “Fine with me.” He grinned, quite pleased with himself. “I told him where we were going even before we left Crestar.” He wagged the boot again. “You know how these things pinch. Do be careful this time.”

A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.

Have a blessed day,

Ann

Seek to become someone’s true friend.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)