Not Sad

—Newearth—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re all Ingots then?”

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

“I didn’t see any techno-armor—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riko reared back. “Does that help?”

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

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

Marge nodded, solemn, and silent.

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

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

Perplexed, Riko strode closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riko turned and fled out the doorway.

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

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

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

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

Historical Fiction Novel

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

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

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

Alive and Willful

—Newearth—

Like all Ingots, Lang’s body from the neck down was encased in techno-armor, but her form-fitting suit outlined the fantasies of multiple beings

She peered at the photo and had to ask—“Was I ever young?”

Riko, a slim Uanyi, could not say. He sat behind his desk with three saucepans lines up along the edge, a large datapad front and center, a holograph pad on the left, and a half-eaten slice of carrot cake on the right. Two baskets of colorful plants hung in front of a large window that now only reflected the outside security light.

Lang laid the photo on Riko’s desk and stared pointedly at the pots. “You keep your kitchen utensils close at hand, eh?”

With a shrug, Riko stood and strolled over to a small cooler unit. “I’m ordering new. Wendell tries, but the kid is hard on kitchenware.”

“I thought he just worked the tables.”

“He only has to look at a pot and it falls to the ground, dents, cracks to pieces…I don’t know. It’s like the kid has a magnetic storm following him everywhere he goes.”

Lang shrugged. “He was a reject that his mama saved. Few Ingots get through infancy—”

Riko hauled two cold drinks out of the cooler, snapped them open, and handed one to Lang.

Lang eyed the bright blue drink and grinned. “Thanks. I was feeling a little parched.”

“How about you?” Riko snapped up the photo. “This is old. Somebody treasured it. Most people only have digital memories.” One eyebrow rose. “Especially Ingots.”

Lang took a long swallow and leaned on the back of a dark brown office couch. “I was a reject too. You’d be surprised how many of us there are. In my case, I was borderline, and because I had a pretty face, they let me through. Never knew my mama or daddy DNA. That’s why Wendell is so different. His mama should never have known. She must’ve been from one of those back-to-nature groups. They practically stripped themselves naked, then tried to raise their young the old way.”

“But someone took this—” Riko waved the photo and took a swig from the bottle.

“Wasn’t any family relation—”

A knock on the door turned their attention.

Another quick drink and Riko strode over and swung open his office door.

Wendell stood in the hall between the café kitchen and the office, sheepish but smiling. “I fixed the sink. And everything is all cleaned up.”

Riko nodded. “Good.” He jogged to his desk and swiped one of the pots from the line. “Give your ma this. I decided to go with another set, so she can use it. No point in throwing it out.”

Wendell accepted the pot, cuddling it in both arms, a grateful servant of a kind benefactor.

Riko shuffled his feet, awkward kindness hindering his usual impatience. “You can go home now. See you in the morning.”

Reciting from memory, Wendell raised his eyes to the ceiling and pointed emphatically, his voice imitating Riko’s command tone. “Bright and early!”

The two grinned at each other.

The depth of the shared moment almost broke Lang’s heart. As Riko closed the door, still grinning, Lang lifted the photo again. “So tell me again—how’d you get this?”

“It was on my desk this morning.” He took a final swig, wiped his lips, and met Lang’s stare. “Either someone is having a little fun with us, or we’d better keep our eyes open.”

Lang drained the last of the blue liquid. “Maybe both.” She shrugged. “But as a reporter, I’d sure like to know who—” With a staggering step, Lang fell onto the couch. “Oh, God!”

Riko ran to her side, his eyes wide, frightened. “What?”

“There was a man…he looked like a man. But now…I wonder.” She dropped her head in her hands, her gaze roving to Riko’s face. “Do you believe in the supernatural?”

Riko choked. He yanked open the recycle depository and tossed in the two empty bottles. “I believe there’s more to the universe than we see or understand if that’s what you mean.”

A tumble of emotions swirled through Lang’s system. “I mean an intentional being—beings. Alive and willful.”

“Like Omega?”

“Could be…but more.” Lang rose; logic overthrowing confusion. “Like the fact that you and I met, that Faye and Taug are buddies, that Cerulean even exists…the million and one oddities, proving that more than mere chance defines out fate.”

Riko dropped onto the couch wearily. “You asked if you’d ever been young…well, I grew up in a war zone, my ma was killed trying to protect a way of life that no longer existed, and I certainly never felt young.” He met Lang’s eyes. “Never.”

Lang plunked down next to Riko, their shoulders touching. “Me neither. I was plucked out of the Ingot world by some unknown hand and trained as a reporter before my synapses were set. My body has always been my biggest asset, but collected nerves saved my life. Yet, I’ve always felt sad.”

In uncharacteristic generosity and intimacy, Riko clasped Lang’s hand. “Me too.”

For a moment, Lang felt young again.

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
~William Shakespeare

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

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

Historical Fiction Novel

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

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

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

Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Ten

Mixing More Than Metaphors

Justine stood in front of a large female chimpanzee and stared into its black eyes. A wall of windows separated them. Unimpressed, the monkey sat slumped in a corner, occasionally yanking on a chain suspended from a tall branch. A baby chimpanzee scampered about in the background.

Justine’s gaze shifted to the baby. The mother’s eyes shifted in accord. The baby trotted over, lurching between two legs and four. It stopped when it saw Justine and then scurried up its mother’s arm, chattering and clinging to her. The mother glared at Justine.

Justine slowly lifted her hands and placed them, palms up, in full view. She lowered her head, letting her gaze drop to the ground.

The mother twitched and swung her baby high onto her other hip. With one last glare, she tipped her nose into the air and swung up into the nearest tree. The chain jangled as she flew by.

“Interesting creatures, aren’t they?”

Justine swiveled and faced Cerulean, her look of concentration morphing into a twisted grin. “Yes, I feel strangely at home here. In a cage that pretends it isn’t a cage.”

Cerulean offered his arm as he glanced toward the door.

“I’m glad to see you again. I’ve thought of you often.”

As Justine took his arm, her grin faded. “I can’t say the same since I only awoke a few weeks ago. But I’m glad to see you now.”

Cerulean patted her arm as he directed her toward a butterfly garden. “Well, tell me about your awakening. Who rescued you and why?”

Justine strolled to a quiet corner and perched on a bench stationed against a life-like diorama of prehistoric insects. “I can’t betray professional secrets, you understand. Suffice to say, my mind is intact, and I have learned from my previous experiences.”

“So you aren’t planning on repeating—”

“I have no certain plans at the moment.”

“And Derik?”

“Ah, yes, I was wondering when you’d ask.” Justine uncrossed her legs and rubbed her hands together. “It’s a little chilly in here. Do you mind if we walk out into the sun?”

Cerulean’s brows furrowed as his eyes darted around the tropical setting, but he merely offered his hand. They strolled out of the exotic building and into the sunlight that shone on every visible food station and playground. Children swung from ropes and vines in a jungle gym not far from where the monkeys gamboled in their own sport.

Justine stopped and pointed. “They are not so different, human children and monkeys.”

“Except the monkeys are in cages and the humans are free.”

Justine peered at Cerulean. “Depends on how you define the word free.”

“Not being locked in.”

Justine sniffed her approval. “Yes, there is that.” She strolled over to a popcorn stand and ordered a bag. Upon obtaining her prize, she meandered back to Cerulean, nibbling each kernel like a squirrel working on a nut. She passed the bag over.

Cerulean took a handful and chewed meditatively. “So are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“Why should I? Can’t a robot have a personal life?”

Cerulean stared into her eyes, his voice softened to just above a whisper. “Justine.”

Refusing his intimate gaze, Justine glanced away and started toward a herd of lumbering elephants set beyond a wide cavern. “I don’t want to remember. I just want to start over.”

Cerulean sighed as he kept pace. “Sounds like a wonderful idea. But to do that, you have to be free. Are you?”

Justine gripped the guardrail before the cavern and leaned over the wide abyss. Black streams of hair curtained her face.

With a gentle touch, Cerulean tipped her chin up so that their eyes met. “Who awoke you?”

“A Cresta named Taug.”

Cerulean’s hand dropped to his side. He shook his head at the elephants. “Damn.”

“He’s not so bad. He told me more than he should’ve. It seems that every biological creature thinks that robots have no moral code.”

“You’re not a robot.”

“I am—to Taug.”

“Not to me. You know that.”

Justine leaned in, her lips only centimeters from Cerulean’s.

“Derik thinks I am real.”

“Derik cares about you.”

“Will that make me real?”

“To him? Or to you?” Cerulean raked shaky fingers through his hair. “Listen, Justine, you have nothing to prove. I care about you, too. You’re a desirable woman who happens to live in a mechanical body. I could kill the mind who decided to put your being into a killing machine, but that wouldn’t help, would it? You have to decide who you are.”

Justine reached over, her fingers searching, and placed her hand in his. Her gaze turned to a group of children tagging behind their mother. “You’ll help me?”

Cerulean wrapped his arm around her shoulder, pulling her close. “If you let me.”

~~~

The orange harvest moon glowed big and round through the lace-curtained windows as Bala slouched in the back booth of the Breakfast Nook, reviewing his datapad. The Breakfast Nook belied its name since it served meals from early morning to late at night and offered everything from human breakfast fare to Uanyi appetizers.

The original human owner planned a country diner serving humans with a hunger for rural Oldearth, but as Newearth’s population changed to reflect more diverse inhabitants—few of whom hungered for anything reminiscent of Oldearth—he soon found himself unable to pay the bills.

Riko sauntered in one morning, saw possibilities, and saved the day—or at least the restaurant. The original human, Mr. Gilbert, long since disabled by old age, still received a healthy percentage of the profits and a certain level of Riko’s unpredictable generosity in free meals whenever he managed to hobble into town. He always nodded approvingly that the lace curtains and Oldearth décor had remained intact even if the menu had drastically changed. Riko always shrugged the old man’s gratitude away. Customers came for the food. It could look like the inside of a Bhuac cave for all he cared. As long as everyone paid in proper Newearth units.

At present, the diner was deserted except for a gangly human teen wiping down the last of the tables. After whistling a free-flowing Bhuac hymn, he slapped the counter with his towel and nodded his approval. He waved a cheerful goodnight to Bala as he passed into the backroom.

Bala grinned and returned a salute.

The door chime tinkled and a poorly attired, slump-shouldered Uanyi shuffled in, his eyes searching the environment.

Bala stood and squared his shoulders.

It was getting late, and Riko had told him he’d wait for his guest to leave before closing up. “But if you could hurry things along—I’ve got my own affairs to tend to, see?”

Bala tried not to cringe at the approaching spectacle. He considered few aliens beautiful and this specimen of Uanyi maleness slouching toward him left him in a cold sweat. Riko was the only Uanyi he’d ever felt comfortable around and even then, he had little desire to get on Riko’s bad side. Bala tried on a smile, stared at the huge, bulbous eyes and the hissing breathing helm, and decided a cold frown might be more appropriate. “Zero, I assume?”

“Idiot, I assume? Don’t use no names.”

Bala sat down as the Uanyi slid into place. The alien’s sibilant hissing made Bala’s nose wrinkle. “Yeah, right. I just—”

A meaty palm slapped the table. “Get on with it. Don’t got all night.”

Bala considered asking Zero if he learned English at Bothmal. But he refrained. “Yes, well, I need to ask you some important questions, and I expect honest answers. I work for the—”

The meaty palm was at it again, slapping the table. “You brought my stuff?”

Bala ran his fingers through his disheveled hair. “Yes, but I’m not about to give you anything until you tell me what I need to know.”

“Huh! Human, you brute.” Apparently, even Uanyi thugs liked to apply understated sarcasm.

Bala squared his shoulders and spoke through clenched teeth. “You haven’t seen anything—”

“Four hundred.”

A puzzled frown crossed Bala’s face. “Excuse—?”

“You waste my time. I make you pay extra.”

“The deal was three hundred, and I’m not about to—”

Zero moved faster than Bala had thought possible. Lurching across the table, he pulled Bala up close and personal, Bala’s small, black eyes nearly touching the Uanyi’s enormous, bulging orbs. “Do what I say—”

To Bala’s utter relief and eternal gratitude, Riko suddenly gripped Zero by the back of his rubbery neck. His large, bulging arms flexed till they seemed like they would burst either his immaculate white shirtsleeves or Zero’s neck.

Zero released Bala as he tried to pry himself free from Riko’s grip.

Riko squeezed harder. “A deal is a deal, trash, now tell the man what he wants to know.”

Bala stared at Riko, a delighted smile tugging at his lips.

Zero squirmed like a fish out of water, but Riko reached over and grabbed Zero’s breather helm, hissing something in Uanyi, which did not sound one bit nice by Bala’s estimation.

Riko blinked his huge eyes with a deadpanned expression, his head tilted toward Bala. “What’d ya want to know?”

Amazed at his piece of unprecedented good fortune, Bala jumped in. “Right, yes! I want to know who killed Carol Hoggsworth.” He dragged his charmed smile off Riko and replaced it with his formal interrogation glare, one he had practiced in the mirror at home until Kendra told him to stop. “I know the murderer was part of a Uanyi gang, and I suspect he was one of your—”

Zero’s breathing grew ragged as he struggled to get his words out. “Cho. His. Name. Was. Cho.” Riko loosened his grip and Zero sucked in a shuddering breath. “But you can’t have him. Someone else got him. Last week.”

Riko dropped Zero back into the booth and released his breather helm. “See, that wasn’t so hard. Next time, be quicker, and you’ll find things go easier.” Riko raised an eyebrow at Bala, tapping his foot.

Bala straightened and dug into his pocket. “Oh, yes!” He pulled out a small computer chip and slid it across to Zero. “Three hundred, just as we agreed. Thank you.” He leaned in, folding his hands as if they were buddies having a friendly chat. “Now, would you happen to know about someone named Jane Right?”

“Never heard of her.” Zero rubbed his swollen neck.

“How about Justine?”

“Listen, you only paid for one—”

Riko slapped Zero across the head with the back of his rubbery hand. “If you don’t want my prints all over your body, you better get generous real quick.”

Zero glared at Riko but kept his seat. “Justine? Yeah, heard of it. Big gun, they say. Someone let it out of the freezer. It’s on the loose. If you got Justine working for you… maybe we can make a new deal.”

Bala pursed his lips into a silent whistle and shook his head, darting a glance at Riko.

Riko gripped Zero by the neck again, lifting him to his feet. “Closing time.”

Zero glared at Riko and ambled to the door, tossing back a parting insult. “Humani.”

Exhaling a long sigh, Bala stood and watched Zero lurch over the threshold.

Riko called out after the retreating figure. “Your mother’d be ashamed. Wash up before going home; you smell like a sewer.”

The door chime clanged as the door slammed.

Bala turned to Riko. A handshake wasn’t an option. “Mother?”

Riko shrugged. “My sister’s youngest. Drugs, experiments, idiot stuff. Nothing but heartbreak.”

Bala shook his head, his hands flapping at his side. “I don’t know how to thank you. Really, I don’t have the resources to bargain well. I’ll tell Clare—”

“Forget it. I didn’t do it for you…particularly. It was just something that needed to be done. The right thing. You know.” Bala swallowed. He did know. He was just surprised that Riko knew.

~~~

Dry winds rustled across the harvested fields on the outskirts of Waukee. Weak rays of sunlight spread out like a heavenly fan, making a brave pretense of warming the land.

As he strode along, Cerulean attempted to soak in the Newearth scent, but he shivered. He felt weak and washed out, like paints with too much water added. He had never felt like this before. Luxonians didn’t ordinarily get sick. The illness that had nearly decimated the female population a century before had been easy to fix, once they knew what was wrong. Similar to the effect penicillin had on human illness in Oldearth history. Patting his arms, Cerulean considered the possibilities. He could simply be exhausted. Or he might have picked up some foreign illness during his work among aliens. Perhaps he had attempted to maintain his human form for too long. Or maybe…he was dying.

He sniffed again, worried. But with some relief, he realized that there was nothing to smell. All living organisms had hidden themselves deep in the soil or slept in organic repose. A picture appeared in his mind: snow swirling from a white sky as he guarded Anne’s sleeping form on a long winter night. So long ago. A searing pain shot through his chest. A human body told his Luxonian mind things he didn’t want to know.

Justine, apparently indifferent to the stark beauty of a Newearth winter, swayed easily at his side, moving as naturally as any woman he’d ever seen. His gaze flickered over her. She could never be Anne or Clare, yet she was refreshingly desirable, something he couldn’t explain to himself. Her body was a biomechanical hybrid created by a race that remained utterly mysterious and ominously dangerous.

Justine stopped and tapped Cerulean’s arm. Her brow furrowed as one hand rested akimbo against her hip. “Before we get there, I want you to tell me the truth.”

Cerulean closed his eyes so as not to roll them in exasperation. He had just spent a couple hours with Bala and his family; the eye roll was becoming second nature. “As I pointed out earlier, Clare is investigating Derik’s case, and I think she could benefit from your…wisdom.”

Justine’s penetrating stare surveyed his face, searchlights looking for any hint of a lie. “What am I going to get in exchange?”

“A friend.”

“Do I need another friend?”

“No one has too many friends.”

Justine’s gaze fixed onto Cerulean’s, unabashedly, hauntingly.

Cerulean’s heart thudded against his ribs. He rubbed his temple and flicked a glance across the street at the transport station. A Bhuac wearily climbed the steps. He knew how he felt.

“Listen, Justine, I can’t help Clare help Derik without your help… if that makes any sense. People do better when they work together. Everyone sees a different part of the picture, and we’ll put the puzzle together piece by piece.”

Justine’s chin jutted forward. “I believe you just mixed your metaphors.”

Cerulean stalked forth again, his hands clenched. “Oh, hell, I’m mixing more than metaphors!”

Justine’s long skirt rippled in the winter breeze, outlining the perfect shape of her legs.

After another long block and across a quiet street, Cerulean led Justine to Clare’s porch. Vibrations of Mozart’s Ninth Symphony poured forth from the neighbor’s house. Cerulean appraised Justine with a quick breath. “Just act natural. Be yourself. You’re here as my friend, and you want to help. That’s all that Clare needs to know. Really.”

Justine squared her shoulders. “I don’t want to help her. I want to help you.”

“Same thing.” Cerulean pressed the doorbell. Nothing. He knocked. Nothing. He rapped his knuckles loudly on the doorframe. Nothing.

Justine tilted her head, appraising the structure before her. “Let me.” She gripped the doorframe and shook it till the whole house rattled.

Cerulean’s shoulders slumped.

The door swung open. Clare’s wide-eyed expression nearly engulfed her face as she peered out the door. “What the—?”

Her gaze flew to Cerulean and then swept over the tall, shapely, well-dressed woman in front of her.

Cerulean leaped into the breach. “Hi, Clare. I thought you were expecting us?”

“Tomorrow.”

“No…today.”

Clare looked from Cerulean to Justine.

Justine mouthed the syllables, “To-day” without uttering a sound.

Clare stared down at her stained sweatshirt, baggy pants, and fluffy slipper-clad feet and stepped aside, her folded arms pressed against her chest. “Well, in any case, it’s nice to see you. Welcome to my humble abode.” Clare smothered her grimace with a tight smile.

Cerulean marched in. Justine swayed in. Clare stumbled up behind.

Reviewing the assortment of artifacts on the shelves, new paintings on the walls, and a speckled Cresta fern in the corner, Cerulean offered a low whistle of approval. “You’ve been delving into the world of alien art and culture?”

Her arms cemented to her chest, Clare glowered a low glance at Justine. “Yeah? So? I decided to try and understand the Cresta mindset a bit better. That so bad?”

Cerulean turned and frowned. “No, not bad. Just not something I’d expect from you.”

Hustling to the center of the room, her stance wide, ready for a fight, except for the fact that her hands were still stuffed under her arms across her chest, Clare huffed. “Why not from me?”

“Well, for one, you’ve never shown any appreciation of art before, and two, you have no great love for Crestas.”

With a dramatic unfolding and accompanied fling of her freed arm, Clare gestured to the room as if giving testimony. “Can’t you see? I’m growing—okay?”

Justine sauntered over to a half-finished clay statue on a pottery wheel, listing precariously to one side. She peered at it critically. “How primitive.” She batted her innocent eyes at Cerulean. “You never told me Clare had children.”

Clare’s jaw jutted out as she blew air between her teeth. “No, that’s mine. I know it’s not very good, but I’m just learning. Kendra calls it art therapy.”

Justine’s brows furrowed in concern, still focused on Cerulean as if Clare were deaf as well as blind. “You didn’t tell me that she was impaired.”

Clare stomped her slippered foot, the fluffy ends wafting in the sudden breeze. “Cerulean!”

With a shake of his head, Cerulean lifted his hands. “Stop, you two! We’re here to help Derik. Remember?”

A crimson blush spreading over her cheeks, Clare tossed a bag over the statue. “Thanks, but I’m the official detective on his case, and I’ve decided that I don’t need your help.” She turned back to Cerulean. “I know you mean well, but I work best alone.”

“What about Bala?”

“I have him on another case. Besides, I need to keep my professional life separate. I shouldn’t have told you my troubles. You’re a great person—Luxonian, I mean—but you can’t possibly understand.”

Cerulean clasped his hands and bowed slightly. “I defer to your superior wisdom. But the truth is, you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Justine is more involved than you realize, and I don’t think you can help Derik without hearing what she has to say.”

Clare’s expression frosted as her voice grew icy. “I don’t need help from an ex-convict. I’m dealing with a crime against humanity by a Cresta, and no robot—no matter how well… endowed—is going to be able to help me. It’s going to take every bit of my training to—”

The front door slammed in the wake of Justine’s departure.

Cerulean exhaled a long, weary breath and raked his fingers through his hair. “Good job, Detective. You just made an enemy of Taug’s hired gun.”

“Even God doesn’t propose to judge a man till his last days, why should you and I?” ~Dale Carnegie

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Nine

A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

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

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

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

“Someone for hire, most likely.”

“And my artwork?”

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jane Right?”

“You know her?”

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

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

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

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

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

Bala bowed and swept out the door.

~~~

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

“Nothing new.” Clare padded across the lawn.

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

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

“Which case?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“End of lecture. Go on.”

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

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

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

“Alive?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Terrific, just terrific! How long ago?”

“Seventy years, give or take….”

“Lord, she’s twice Derik’s age!”

“Three or four times, I’d imagine.”

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

“I’d still be older by a millennium.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that supposed to help?”

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

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

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

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

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Eight

Just the Beginning

“Come along, big fellow, keep up with me. For your large size, you take such tiny steps.” Governor Jane Right forged ahead of Taug down the long, bright hallway of the Territorial Capitol.

Taug’s somber gaze dropped to the floor. “It’s the boots. They aren’t built for a quick pace.”

Austere nameplates with gold lettering testified to the worthiness of the inhabitants secreted behind ornate doors on the top floor.

Taug ignored the doors and concentrated on his balance as he tried to stay close enough to the governor to have a word with her. “I thought I was going to meet you inside your office.”

She didn’t bother looking back as he trailed along behind. “What? And have every tongue wagging about Governor Right’s private meetings with an unknown Cresta? No, that wouldn’t do. It’s much better that you state your business out here while we walk. Keep your secrets in plain sight, I always say.”

“But couldn’t someone—”

“Eavesdrop? In the office, more likely. Listening devices planted from floor to ceiling, I’m sure. No one ever thinks of bugging the hallway. Besides, until I know what you want, I can’t waste my time.”

“A laboratory.” Taug huffed, attempting to adjust his breathing helm. Never in all the deepest waters…

“A laboratory? What for? We have plenty of labs in the hospitals, and I believe Central University has the best on the planet.” A simper twitched across her face. “Being a bit greedy, aren’t you?”

Taug slowed his pace as they neared a narrow, circular stairway extending from the blue, star-spackled, domed ceiling down to a brightly lit, green-tiled floor, creating the illusion of descending from a brilliant night sky to sunny Newearth.

One tentacle stroked Taug’s chin doubtfully. “Not at all. I have an idea that cannot be shared, except with a chosen few.”

“Huh.” Governor Right pointed to the steep steps. “Can you handle these?”

Taug hesitated. “Possibly, if we go slow enough.”

“Here give me your hand… or a tentacle. Whatever.”

Taug placed a tentacle inside Governor Right’s surprisingly strong grip and held on for dear life.

Concentrating on Taug’s every step, like a mother taking her toddler into deep waters, the middle-aged woman furrowed her brow. “I need to know who’s giving the party and why.”

Taug laid each mechanical boot firmly on the step before lifting the other free. A sudden flashback of struggling onto land for the first time as a hatchling flashed through his mind.

“There is no party, I assure you. Only me and one other. I will have to hire a few assistants, but they will be completely in the dark as to the grander purpose.”

“So what’s the grand purpose?”

“To create crossbreeds.”

Governor Right shook her head apparently at both their slow descent and the comment. “Whatever for?”

“To become invincible. Why else?”

The governor’s eyes never strayed from his boots as Taug inched himself down. “Invincible? How?”

“If I can blend Cresta intelligence with human, terrestrial capability, I can cultivate the brilliance of each species in the service of those who know how to manage a planet.”

“Any others?”

Taug glanced up, an eyebrow raised, his mouth orifice puckered.

An eye-roll communicated the governor’s impatience with Taug’s obtuse understanding. “Why not Cresta with Uanyi? Or human with Ingot?”

Taug shrugged off the governor’s unbounded ambition. “There are no limits to the possibilities, but Cresta and human would be the best combination to begin with.”

Governor Right’s hand flew out protectively as Taug stumbled. Her voice hardened. “Something could go wrong, and we’d have a mess on our hands.”

The green-tiled floor was only one step away and Taug beamed. “Many things could go right, and we’d have the most versatile, powerful beings in our grasp.”

The governor’s tight lips broke into a mirrored grin as she assisted Taug onto solid footing. “Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Taug wiggled his tentacle free of Governor Right’s grasp. “Thank you.”

Glancing around before starting forward, Governor Right beckoned him to stay close. “What’ll I get?”

“Whatever you need.” Taug wrapped his tentacles around his middle as he negotiated his way across the crowded floor. Even a minor slap with a tentacle could have serious consequences.

Her grin turned ironic. She glanced back. “Your Cresta word of honor?”

Taug offered a slight bow as he hustled out a wide doorway behind her.

A cool breeze played havoc with the governor’s coiffured hair. “Thought as much. I want a full report each month, in person. Nothing written, of course.” Halting on a busy sidewalk, she scanned the street.

Pedestrians rushed at a city pace on either side as the Vandi traffic roared in urbane, noonday routine.

“Naturally.”

Never taking her eyes off her environment, Governor Right leaned over and whispered. “Oh, and I want to meet one, as soon as you have it ready.”

Taug stiffened. “Would that be necessary?”

“No. But it’d be thrilling. Everyone needs some excitement now and again.”

Taug bowed to the inscrutable.

With a new light in her eye, the governor lifted her arm and waved with broad, commanding strokes. “Ah, here comes my secretary. I have a meeting with the Inter-Alien Alliance committee in a few minutes. Pay attention now.” She wiggled two beckoning fingers at a man crossing traffic. “George! Here!” She again leaned toward Taug. “My private secretary. Contact him when you need something.”

Taug extracted a datapad from his bio-suit. “I have a list.”

Snorting back her laugh, the governor beckoned George again. “How very efficient of you. So Cresta.”

A snappy dresser with black hair, brooding eyes, and squared shoulders sprang across the street and lightly stepped forward.

“George, this is Taug, a special ambassador from Cresta. We are assisting him in a private matter. You’ll see that he gets everything he needs.”

George appraised Taug in a sweeping and ever-so-disdainful glance. His voice was as dry as the sidewalk he stood upon. “Certainly.”

“Thank you.” Taug turned to Governor Right. “It has been an honor.”

Governor Right grinned, grasped one of Taug’s tentacles, and shook it formally. “Just the beginning, I’m sure.”

Taug stood back as George led the governor towards a waiting vehicle. The patient Cresta cradled his aching tentacle close to his body, his half-lidded eyes glowing like embers.

~~~

Curved walls glowed white against state-of-the-art, red shelving units packed with pristine lab equipment. An unoccupied dissection tube extended from one wall, while medical instruments stood lined up on neat tables like soldiers ready for the next battle.

“Do you like it?” Taug’s usual confidence expanded as he waved a tentacle in an arching manner, encompassing the vast room in one magnificent sweep. “I always wanted to follow up on my father’s work, and now I have my chance.”

Derik took a tentative step into the massive laboratory. “But where… how? Did the Cresta government give you all this?”

Taug lumbered closer, a sheepish grin spreading his puffy lips wide. “Ah, no, that would be most unlikely. The Cresta High Council would like nothing more than to see me safely returned to Crestar. They have plans. I have plans. At some distant point, the two shall meet.”

Derik appraised the expensive bio-scanners, surgical tools, the specimen containers, steel tables, bright lights, tubs of various solutions, and the central dissecting tube with miniature tubes, like petals, jutting from the wall. The entire room was bathed in a soft, white glow. In the back, a transparent wall offered a view into an enormous aquarium.

Derik stepped closer, his jaw dropping and his eyes widening. “You keep fish—in your own Cresta pool?”

“Just for eating, when I get hungry after a hard day.”

“Why not just keep them preserved, frozen or something?”

Taug followed Derik’s astonished gaze and burst into giggles, his tentacles writhing in mirth. “I forget; you are as ignorant as a hatchling.”

Derik itched to take off his mechanical boots. He couldn’t account for this sudden longing to jump into the Cresta-sized aquarium.

Taug scooted closer and, with a tilt of his head, appraised Derik’s gaze. “Yes, you feel it, don’t you? The pull of water? Once you’ve been trained, we’ll go in together. It’ll be fun. It may be the most pleasant thing you’ve ever done.”

Derik’s eyes remained fixed on the pool, his tone apathetic. “I’ve been swimming before, but I never liked it much. It was okay—”

“But it never felt right. Of course not. A Crestar pool is quite different. A human would no more enjoy a dip in a Crestonian sea than he would like to splash about in a bowl of vegetable soup. But for us, it’s magnificent.”

Derik slid his hands across the thick glass. His splayed fingers caressed the surface. His voice grew husky. “When?”

Taug nodded, a gleam in his eye darting from the pool to Derik. “Soon. But first I need to understand you better. You are unique in a universe of unique beings. That said, I must understand how to best adapt you to Cresta life.”

Never shifting his gaze off the pool, Derik hunched his shoulders. “Cresta life? Why? Newearth is my home.”

“Someday you may wish to visit our…your world.” Taug’s golden eyes appraised Derik’s form. “It would be a shame if that visit were hampered by poor adaptations. Once we understand your biology better, we can fashion appropriate gear to make your visit on Crestar most enjoyable. I assure you, many Crestas will view you as a hero. You will swim everywhere acclaimed—”

“I’m no hero!” Derik’s voice sharpened as he slapped the glass. “Just a mixed-breed, nobody.”

Taug laid a tentacle around Derik’s arm and gripped it firmly. “One thing you must learn now, before anything else: Crestas are scientists. We have inquisitive minds that never rest. No Inter-Alien Alliance or planetary treaty can keep us from our natural right—to pursue knowledge. Anyone who assists us is a hero.”

Derik’s gaze bore down on Taug’s face. “How?”

“Allow me to study your biology and learn how my father created you. Then, perhaps someday, you will not be alone.”

Turning from Taug back to the pool of murky green water, Derik’s voice fell to a whisper. “I’m not alone.” He darted a quick glance at Taug. “What’s in it for you—personally—I mean?”

“Success brings many rewards. Don’t worry; I’ll be well compensated, in the end.” Taug padded to a wall on which hung a variety of breathing apparatus. “Though I planned on waiting, I think you need a little reward now. Here, put this on and come with me.”

Derik held the apparatus at eye level, scrutinizing it. A quizzical expression spread across his face. “What is it?”

“It’ll help you breathe while we swim. I’ve been adapting it, just for you. I want to see how well it works before we begin our studies.”

“So, you’re not going to kill me—ever?”

“I have no immediate plans to kill you.” Taug lumbered toward a side hallway.

Derik trailed along behind. “Somehow, that didn’t sound as comforting as I hoped.”

Taug and Derik disappeared into the dark hall, leaving the laboratory silent and empty.

Suddenly the waters in the tank were stirred and millions of bubbles floated in an arc toward the surface. Taug, swimming as gracefully as a porpoise, flashed by. His feet, free of the mechanical boots, paddled like luminescent fins. He circled up and around, dashing about like a child at play, swirling bubbles in his wake.

He dove away and returned with one tentacle wrapped around Derik. The breathing apparatus with attached goggles was strapped tight across Derik’s face. His wide eyes stared straight ahead, frozen in panic. Despite Taug’s support, Derik remained as limp as a noodle.

Taug began stoking Derik’s arm with a free tentacle.

The anxiety in Derik’s eyes faded. He began kicking his legs and stroking the water with his arms. Slowly, but more confidently with each movement, he began swimming…free as a fish in the green, Cresta sea.

“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 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 One

—Planet Lux—
Test a Theory

Ark, his fleshy white potbellied body encased in a somber gray bio-suit and brown boots, stood aside from the main crowd in the domed Luxonian chamber. He blew bubbles through his breather helm, wrapped his four tentacles behind his back, and tried to ignore the bright light streaming in from above. Planet Lux has altogether too bright a sun. They ought to shield us from the blasted thing. He squinted and averted his eyes.

The Luxonian meeting hall, punctuated with purple-veined marble columns and glorious fountains shaped like creatures from every planet in the district, was filled to capacity with representatives from four races: Crestonian, Bhuaci, Luxonian, and Ingoti.

He studied a Luxonian Lightbird sculpture, as it appeared to fly into the air, spraying clear water from its beak. With a shrug, he shifted to the more fascinating Crestonian Sandfish, spouting green liquid from its razor-toothed jaws. A shiver rolled down his spine.

Dragging his gaze away, Ark nonchalantly shifted his stance and waited for his superior to approach. It would never do to appear hasty.

Ungle, a Crestonian with bright red cilia swaying on top of his plump head and dressed in a spring-green bio-suit and matching boots, meandered the circuit of the room with two tentacles wrapped behind his back in a contemplative manner. A third tentacle held a long-stemmed glass filled to the brim with blue gelatinous goo. With his last tentacle, he shook appendages—or mechanical armatures—as the occasion required, with various Luxonian and alien representatives. His perpetual smile never wavered.

Ark slumped and caught the eye of a young Luxonian who stared directly at him. Ark patted his breathing helm as if stifling a yawn.

The Luxonian’s gaze delved deeper, his obvious curiosity breaking to the surface.

Annoyance broke Ark’s placid mood. He discharged a narrow-eyed glare at the Luxonian, who soon turned away. Idiot.

“So you finally made it.”

Ark’s head jerked so hard as he twisted around to face his superior that he felt a crackling in the bone holding his spine erect. Blast. I’ll have a muscle spasm from that. He clasped Ungle’s tentacle from which dangled a gaudy bracelet. Ark blinked and swallowed. Better not expect me to kiss that thing—like some weird Bhuaci sign of obeisance.

“Not for kissing, just admiring.”

Ark swallowed convulsively. Uh-oh.

Ungle laughed, nearly spraying liquid over the top of his breathing helm. “I can’t read your mind—but really—Ark, you’ve become practically translucent. Been among humans too long in my opinion.”

A Luxonian waiter in humanoid form, as befits the theme of the meeting, and dressed in an embroidered gold tunic and lavender leggings, glided in close. With a bow, he offered a tray of pink, blue, and green drinks.

Ark glanced at Ungle.

Ungle poured blue goo into his breathing helm, slurped, and shivered. “Not bad. But I’d recommend the green. Not authentic green, you understand, but less of a kick than the blue.”

Ark swiped a blue drink off the tray and poured it daintily into his breathing helm. Like a connoisseur savoring an ancient wine, Ark sipped his liquid while his gaze wandered the room.

Ungle waved the servant away.

Ark turned to his superior. “You were the first to recommend Earth observation. Have you changed your mind?”

“Not at all. I think humanity will have a great deal to offer—in time. But I also realize there are many complications that must be considered—”

A bell tinkled.

“Bothmal those bells!” Ungle tapped Ark on the shoulder. “Meet me in my chambers after the meeting.”

“You aren’t staying for the Balatin Reenactment Festival?”

Ungle gurgled. “I’m a Crestonian. Science, not pleasure, dictates my schedule.”

Ark took the hint.

~~~

Ark settled in a plump chair and hated the hiss of his bio-suit as it wedged between the stiff arms. Dark waters, I’ll never get up without help.

The Crestonian chambers included a mini-pool built into the back wall, cushy, white furniture, and a simple cleansing and dressing closet.

Ark glanced over as Ungle tapped a console, lighting up a holopad.

“Pay attention now. I’ve done careful research, and I think I have just the solution we need.”

Ark grunted as he tried to wiggle out of the chair. “What…is…the…problem?” Popping like a cork, he sprang to his feet.

Ungle straightened, and a hologram of the Luxonian guardian stationed on Earth—Teal—appeared before them. His slim, well-balanced figure, straight light brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and firm jaw emphasized his determined personality.

Ark shrugged and clumped forward, his embarrassment forgotten. “Teal?” His gaze swiveled to Ungle.

“As I mentioned earlier, science dictates the direction of my life. I believe that humanity has a great deal to offer Crestonian studies. Not the least of which is their obsession with good and evil.”

Ark wrapped his tentacles behind his back, arched his neck forward, and meandered in close. “Surely, we understand the concept as well as anyone. Why—?”

“We don’t experience the polar opposites as humans do. It makes quite a difference. Consider—” Ungle tapped the console. Teal dissolved, and Chai appeared beautifully dressed in crimson robes embroidered in gold. “A dangerous—by all human standards—evil force controls this man. It’s a force I’ve rarely encountered before. Yet, this human believes he’ll benefit from the experience.”

Ark’s tentacles wiggled nervously behind his back. “What does he have to do with Teal?”

“This being—calls himself Chai—will cross paths with the one you call Ishtar. It doesn’t take serious extrapolation of data to figure this out. Their paths must intersect.”

“So—”

“Teal will be watching. He’ll care what happens. He might even attempt to interfere.”

“That goes against all his training.”

Ungle shrugged. “Given proper motivation, we all go against our training. Don’t be obtuse, Ark.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to see the natural exchange between Chai and Ishtar. I want to witness a soul damned to—”

“Hell?”

“Yes, I believe that is the term.”

“You want me to keep an eye on Teal—is that it?” Chuckling, Ungle tapped the console. “Not primarily. I want you to keep your eye on her.”

The holographic image of Chai dissolved, and Sienna, a Luxonian beauty with reddish hair, golden eyes, and a slim figure appeared in all her radiant glory on the holopad.

“Sienna? She cares for Teal, but—”

“She’s a Luxonian with a healer’s soul. She wants to help so badly; she could do a great deal of harm in the process.” Ungle tapped the screen and Chai, Teal, and Sienna appeared together on the holopad facing away from one another. “They’re each convinced that they know what’s best for humanity. I’m convinced that they have no idea what’s in store for them.”

“And you want me to observe and collect data?”

“I want to test a theory—about good and evil.”

Ark waited.

Ungle smirked. “You’ll see.”

A new OldEarth Ishtar Encounter chapter coming each Tuesday and Thursday. 

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Ann

“He shook my dozing soul and threw the cold water of reality in my face, so that life and God and heaven and hell broke into my world with glory and horror.” (on CS Lewis) ~John Piper

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Legitimate Concerns

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it past 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 described in your reports?”

He shoved loose soil aside and 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 sterile 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.

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.

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.” He eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched and an oval blue-green piece of fruit from a bowl on the coffee table and chomped a big bite. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressure everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around him 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 glare like he does.”

Teal chewed 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 behind 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 face 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 glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

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

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

Ark eyed the glass. “Having liquids are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched over 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. Taking copious notes.”

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

Sterling lifted the full glasses and strolled across to Ark. “Here. You can have two 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 a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out.” He nodded to the counter. “You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “Or do they have claws?”

Ark poured the drink into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed his entire drink down his throat in one swallow. Stay calm. Right. “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 and turned abruptly. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

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

Ark’s golden eyes rounded. “Or me.”

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

Ark choked. “And 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 discrete distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter. “Of all the—” He felt his composure cracking. “Do you mean to tell me that you have someone watching Zuri, who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and waved Sterling and Ark closer. “I want to return to Earth undetected and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

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

Sterling froze. In surprise, he realized that his fingers actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot is afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his pot, pulled 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 perched all four tentacles onto his thick waist. “How’d you know we’re focusing our attention on Ishtar?”

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

Teal stared him into the ground. If that were possible.

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

Teal sauntered over and perched on the edge of a chair.

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

Teal tented his fingers before his face. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark wiggled a tentacle in the air. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Sterling rubbed his brow, he felt drained. “Can’t I just lie and say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark and Teal glanced at each other and shook their heads.

Teal slipped back onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

Sterling lay stretched out as if ready for his analyst session, crossed his feet, and placing his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb like this. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth—you know what I mean.”

Teal glanced at the bright sunlight filtering through the window. The purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. “That from Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers steeple style. “Yes. They’re a super race. They can create new life forms, terra-form entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While Luxonians, Crestas, Uanyi, Bhuaci, and Ingots each have our own unique abilities, this race can do all we do, but better…with more flare. They’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbow room, so to speak. We’ve only discovered a few of their kind. The ones the Crestas irritated must have been a bit high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep entire worlds in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark frowned at Teal. He tapped Sterling on the shoulder. “Go on.”

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

Teal jerked to his feet. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

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

Teal stomped across the room. “Ishtar isn’t evil…he’s just—”

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

Teal stopped. “But why kill me? Or Zuri? We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed and swung his feet off the couch. “They aren’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants you to continue your work so that—” Ark’s pink cheeks blanched. “Oh, no.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark by a tentacle. “What?”

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

Teal shrugged. “Zuri is annoying, but not really a distraction. Usually, he’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. “Not Zuri. Sienna. That gorgeous Luxonian. He wanted me to make her 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 I don’t believe that was a natural lightning strike.”

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

Teal sprang at Sterling and wrapped his fingers around his neck.

Ark’s tentacles peeled Teal’s fingers away. Slapping Teal’s hands away with one tentacle, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Teal glared at Sterling. “How could you? Sienna is innocent. I’m a Luxonian guardian, and I thought we—” He spat his words. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark waddled between them, shoving them further away from each other. He turned from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand Ungle’s persuasive nature. He can make life on Lux much more challenging—if he wants. He can create an interstellar incident and make it look like Sterling’s long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that he knows quite enough about evil already.”

Ark laughed. “Very observant. But Ungle has legitimate concerns. The mystery race will dictate the entire Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put the entire planet in the dark?”

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

Teal shook his head. “Not possible. In your case, I wish it was, though.”

Sterling peered at Teal. “You’re right. I should’ve told you. I was wrong. But Ungle…all his talk of good and evil…I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna into leaving 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 that stupid planet now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in all directions. “I don’t know if I have enough to keep everyone in line.”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment. I’m not feeling well.”

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.

Ark slapped Sterling on the side of the head.

Sterling stood and placed his hand on Teal’s shoulder. “I know you have feelings for her. I’d spontaneously combust if it’d make you feel better.” His gaze wandered to his vine.

It appeared to wave its purple fronds at him.

Oh hell.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

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

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

By Nature Fleeting

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter…

Teal peered into Sienna’s eyes as they lay on a grassy plain before a mighty cliff. The hot sun beat down on them. He held himself above her, propped on his arms, his knees dug into the grass, the length of her body below him.

Sienna waited. A grin hovered on her lips.

Teal lowered himself.

A flash of fear rippled over her face.

With a groan, Teal tipped his head back and rolled to the side sprawled flat 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.” Climbing to his feet, he slapped dry stems from his grey 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 hand over her hair, across her shoulder, down her arm to her waist…and forced himself to stop. He lifted his gaze 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’s gaze followed his. 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 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 land. 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. “Who?” Snatching up a rock, she crouched for battle. “Can they see us?”

“No. And we can’t see them. But they are there none-the-less.”

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

 I should’ve seen this coming. A stabbing pain tore through Teal’s chest. “We need to return.” He glanced at the sky. “Officially, I shouldn’t even be here without Zuri and Ark.”

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.

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

With a smug 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 gaze with hers. “I disagree. Beauty is eternal. It’s our gaze that is fleeting.”

~~~

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

Zuri crouched on a boulder and 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.”

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 slapped 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 over 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. “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.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

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

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00