Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Thirteen

Long Past Trust

Justine stood in the middle of the pristine laboratory, analyzing Taug, her legs wide, her arms folded across her chest, and one eyebrow raised, marring her symmetrical face. She spoke with forced precision. “You-want-me-to-kidnap-Derik?”

Taug’s tentacles spread in acceptance. “You’ve accomplished far more difficult tasks. This shouldn’t prove much of a challenge.”

Justine swatted a mosquito on her arm and frowned. She darted a look from Taug to the sterile room and back to Taug. “Why?”

Taug slapped at the buzz of an insect in his ear. He waddled over to a small tank, lifted the lid, peered in, shook his head, and replaced it. “He hasn’t been answering my messages. The last time we spoke, I urged him to move in—”

“You want him to live in the lab? Why?” Justine squared her shoulders and unfolded her arms, fists ready for hand-to-hand combat.

Completely ignoring Justine, Taug’s eyes followed a buzzing insect around the room. “He might get hurt out in the open.”

Justine snatched the fly from the air and held it by the wing. It dangled, buzzing even more furiously. She pounded forward, staring Taug in the eye. “Tell me the truth.”

A tentacle flew at Justine. In a second, her legs were wrapped in a tight squeeze. Taug flipped her across the room.

Justine regained her footing and barreled forward, her head down in ramming position.

Taug’s body quivered on impact. He grabbed a tentacle-full of hair and pulled Justine’s head back so that she could see him. One tentacle held a Dustbuster while another tapped a small, black sphere on his belt.

Justine froze, her gaze fixed on the belt.

Taug shoved her back and gestured with the Dustbuster. “Stand by the wall.” He circled her as he held the weapon leveled at her chest. “When it comes to telling the truth, you’ve not been particularly forthcoming.” He nodded at the micro-recorder on his belt. “You’ve seen this before? I implanted a matching one on Derik; it looks like a mole on the back of his neck. I dare say he hasn’t noticed, but you have.” A snide grin slithered across his face. “With this little ear, I’ve heard every conversation he’s had. I must say, he’s not an original lover but at least he seems sincere.”

Justine’s jaw clenched, fitting her rock-like stance. “None of your business.”

Taug chided her with a waving tentacle. “Oh, but Derik is my business. As he is supposed to be yours. No good ever comes from mixing business with pleasure, I always say.” Taug aimed the Dustbuster as Justine’s hand quivered. “Don’t even think about it. I’m not a fool. It would only take one mark to have you disassembled for spare parts. My notes, available to every Cresta upon my death, would identify you as my murderer. Your memories are not so valuable so as to save you a second time.”

Justine threw back her head, defiant. “What do you want?”

“Retrieve Derik. I want him here, in my lab, tomorrow. And I want him to know that he needs to cooperate with me or—”

“You’re threatening me?”

“Very effectively.”

Justine strode to the wall-tank and ran a finger across the glass. She stared into the murky depths with studious indifference. “What are you planning to do, long term?”

Taug lowered his tentacle, relaxing the Dustbuster against his side. “If it was necessary for you to know, I’d tell you, but it’s not. All you need to know is that his life depends on how efficiently you obey me.”

Justine’s splayed hand stiffened. “I’m your slave now?”

“The term slave involves the possibility of freedom; you don’t have that, so you are not a slave.”

Justine turned, her gaze frozen, and stepped toward Taug. “What am I, then?”

“A tool.”

“You cold-blooded, inhumane—”

Taug chuckled, his bulbous eyes gleaming. “Trust me, being human isn’t quite as charming as it’s made out to be. I’ve had a lot of experience, and humans are often every bit as cold-blooded as a Cresta. The difference is that I work in accordance with my nature; therefore, I’m perfecting myself. Humans have no such hope.” Taug meandered past Justine toward the wall. “I’m going for a swim. Mention that to Derik. It’ll make your task a little easier.”

Justine strode to the door but before crossing the threshold, she stopped. She looked back at Taug. “And the insects? What are they for?”

Nodding in approval, Taug slid the Dustbuster back into a sleeve pocket. “I knew you’d ask. They are a part of my studies. Insects have some rather startling qualities that I might find useful.”

Justine grunted her agreement as she stalked out of the room. “You’d make a good insect yourself.”

~~~

Justine chopped carrots at lightning speed. Her fingers swept the assembly of other vegetables into a waiting pot, swiveled to the sink, and added water. Faster than a human eye could follow, she dropped in spices and a variety of mystery ingredients.

As the spicy aroma pervaded the room, Derik shuffled into the kitchen. He hugged her from behind and kissed her neck. “Hmmm, hmm, that smells good! How did you manage to put that together so quickly?”

Justine leaned back into the hug and reached behind to ruffle his thick hair. “I already had it prepared. I just needed to warm it up.”

“Gorgeous, intelligent, and a good cook. Is there another woman like you on the planet?”

Justine’s lopsided smile wavered. “Not likely.”

A ting sent her into her living room. Ivy stenciling meandered across the upper walls while baskets of hanging plants brightened the corners. Oldearth-style paintings hung strategically throughout the room. Justine ignored it all as she retrieved her datapad. Taug’s face rose into view. Justine slapped the datapad against her thigh as Derik ambled into the room.

Justine shook her head and flipped the pad over on her desk. “Just a reminder.” She stepped over to a wide couch and patted the seat next to her. “We need to talk.”

Derik grimaced. “Something important?”

Justine interpreted his expression and grinned winningly. “Not that kind of talk.”

“Ah, good!” Derik slid onto the couch beside her, one arm swinging up and around her shoulders.

She caressed one of his legs with hers. “I met a friend of yours, a Cresta named Taug.”

Derik jerked, but Justine held him back with a comforting touch. “Don’t worry. He told me everything. About you and his father. It was a relief, really. I knew there was something different about you, but I just never imagined—”

Derik closed his eyes and leaned back with a strangled sigh. “Why did he have to tell—you?”

“He cares about you.” Justine stroked Derik’s cheek. “For a Cresta, that’s a high compliment. He said he could help you adjust to all the changes. But you need to trust him.”

Derik opened his eyes and stared at Justine. “Did he tell you that he considered killing me?”

Justine shifted closer and breathed into his ear, stroking his cheek. Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “He told me everything. He needs you, and I want you to be happy.”

Tears brimming, Derik leaned forward. “I’m a mixed breed, illegal, and unwanted by every race in the universe. I should’ve had the courage to tell you. It’s been hell trying to hide my deformities, but I was afraid—”

Justine ran a finger across his lips. “Don’t. I have eyes; I already knew…some things. But it doesn’t bother me. The man I care about is on the inside. Not the shell on the outside.”

Derik’s delicate composure fractured. He dropped his face into his hands and sobbed. “I don’t deserve you.”

A twisted smile shadowed Justine’s face. “Maybe not. But you’ve got me just the same. And Taug. Question is, will you trust us?”

Derik wiped his eyes and leaned into Justine’s comforting embrace. “It’s gone long past trust.”

~~~

Derik removed the swimming mask from his face and pulled a large towel from a rack above his dripping bodysuit. The suit didn’t cover his Cresta anatomy, which allowed him to absorb the nutrients and experience the intoxicating sensation of revitalized Cresta skin. He had little to compare the sensation to, but he openly admitted that it was addictive. This month he had gone swimming with Taug nearly every day.

Taug donned his bio-suit in calm dignity. His eyes flickered over Derik’s human-Cresta body, and he pursed his puffy lips. He no longer shuddered at the sight of Derik’s anatomy. In fact, Derik wondered if he wasn’t just a bit jealous.

Derik had shown that he had the capacity to enjoy Cresta sensibilities with remarkable depth. Yet he also retained the ability to enjoy a fully functioning human body. Though Derik did have to wear bio-suits now, so did everyone in away. Even humans had to wear protective clothing.

As soon as they were dressed, Taug gestured Derik toward a round steel table piled high with instruments, standing in front of a wall of medical scanners. “It’s time.”

Derik shook his head. “I’m awfully tired. Couldn’t we skip it today? I mean, I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Taug rubbed one tentacle across his chin meditatively. “Yes, I’ve been thinking about that.” He padded across the room. “I’m concerned about you.”

Idly lifting one of the medical instruments, Derik peered at it closely. “Me? Why? You’re the only one I know who wants me dead, so I’m relatively safe, don’t you think?” Derik’s accompanying chuckle proved how far their relationship had developed.

Taug appeared to appreciate the joke and offered a thin smile in return. “True, but Newearth is still a dangerous place. Beings get injured all the time; they’re victims of a hundred crimes a day. You never know when something might happen.”

Derik thumped his chest. “No one is going to mess with me.” He wagged his finger playfully at Taug. “You’re in far more danger than I am.”

“That is another consideration.” Taug shuffled closer. “Derik, I’d like you to live here.”

The instrument dangled from Derik’s hand. “At a laboratory?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t you live here?”

“I have a small room in the back, but I would install separate quarters for you, a nice apartment, better than what you have now. That way you won’t have to travel back and forth, and we can continue working—”

Slapping the instrument on the table, Derik pouted. “But I have a job and a life! I’m not just your pet project, you know. I have a relationship and my job is very—”

“Low paying. I could pay you five times as much.”

Derik shuffled across the room, curiosity getting the better of him. “You never offered to pay before.”

“I was still deciding.”

Stopping in mid-stride, Derik turned and unrolled a heart monitor from the wall. He darted a glance at Taug and twirled the tip between his fingers. “So if I take your offer, you’re certain you won’t kill me?”

Taug hesitated for just an instant. “Yes.”

Derik dropped the heart monitor. “I don’t know. I like your offer, but I need to think about it. I want to talk to Justine.” Derik smirked and tilted his head back, appraising the figure before him. “So, are you considered good looking, on Crestar, I mean?”

Taug wiggled, a humorous gleam in his eye. “I was what you would call ‘quite the catch.’ In fact, I had so many Crestar females asking to be my mate that my parents held an auction.”

Derik swallowed, his eyes bugging as he stumbled forward. “What? Your parents auctioned you off?”

Taug nearly fell backward in a spasm of delight. “No, no. You are such a hatchling! I forget. No, they auctioned for the female to be my prize.”

Derik rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand as if to wipe away a bad taste. “That’s sick! I thought males and females had equal status in your culture.”

Taug shook his head impatiently. “They do, but you misunderstand. Equal does not mean the same. We have rituals for mating and procreation, much like you humans. There was once something humans called the bride price, was there not?”

“In our barbaric past.”

“Perhaps, but for us, the bride price is not barbaric. It shows how much the family wants the match and the worth of the female. You can trust that we do not waste our families. Males, females, and hatchlings each have an important part to play in our culture, and we do not treat any of them as expendable.” Taug looked away.

Derik reached for the heart monitor again, as if clinging to a lifeline, and pulled it free of the wall. “But you’re scientists. You experiment on everyone. If you experiment, someone has to be expendable.”

Taug stood frozen. His gaze returned to Derik, appraising him anew. “It’s intriguing, the way you think. But still, you don’t understand. Science is our greatest good. To further science is the highest call, and therefore, no one is expendable.”

Derik shook his head and stepped to the door. It slid open automatically. “Well, for a while there, I was pretty expendable. Maybe I’m not now, but seeing how things can change, I’d rather keep my options open.” He trudged across the threshold.

Taug shuffled over, picked the heart monitor off the floor, and clutched it to his chest, his gaze never leaving the doorway.

“Ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.” Desmond Tutu

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Five

We All Make Choices

—OldEarth—

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

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

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

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

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

“Teal would probably like to see you evaporate.”

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

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

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

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

“But you like Chai better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sienna rolled her eyes.

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

“He’s avoiding me.”

“Wise man.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ark bowed as if accepting a compliment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Nine

An Honest Weakness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, you were attracted to her mind?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

Ark wiped a tear from his eye.

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

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

“I wouldn’t know.”

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

“Luxonians hardly need—”

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

Ark gripped Sterling to keep him upright.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

More bubbles surfaced.

Ark frowned. His tentacles wiggled at his sides.

More bubbles.

Ark’s bulbous eyes widened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ark’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Sterling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

“Eoban isn’t that shallow.”

Sienna stared at Teal, widening her eyes alarmingly.

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

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

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

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

Teal dropped his gaze.

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

“But you can?”

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

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

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

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

Sienna clasped her hands and winked away.

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

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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Trust Me

cobra

Eric peered through hooded, yellow eyes. His lithe, perfectly toned body stood at attention with his hands clasped serenely behind his back. He studied his boss, Simms, with absolute composure. Nothing could surprise him—he was a master of self-control and trusted no one.

Simms, a human with more replacement parts than he liked to admit, could not hide his boxy shape, though he tried. His hair, though not his own, appeared thick and black, while his olive skin tone complimented the wine-colored shirt and trousers he wore. A gold pendant hung at his neck while his bejeweled fingers flashed with color.

He sat leaning back on a well-padded chair, his feet propped up on a wide window ledge. He licked a large, chocolate-chip ice cream cone wrapped in a freeze-sleeve, which kept it nice and cold, preventing drips. Simms did not like drips. He slurped a large swipe of ice cream and then darted a glance at Eric, gesturing with his free hand. “Just say yes and make us both happy.”

Eric licked his lips. “You haven’t told me your plans.”

Simms slammed down his feet, swerving his ice cream cone dangerously close to his desk. “What? I have to tell you everything? Who do you think I am—a beggar-boy? A Bhuac maybe?” He drew in a long breath and regained his accustomed position, swinging his feet back up on the sill. “No. You just say yes. Then I tell you my plans.” He chomped down on the top of the cone and slurped his words. “Don’t you trust me?”

“I already killed once for you; I think that merits some—”

“Aw, hell. You killed nobody. A nothing. What I’m talking about now is real business. My business. I have plans. Big plans.” He shrugged his shoulders. “You want in or not?”

Eric straightened his already straight shoulders. “Yes.”

A wide smile broke over Simms’ face. He swung his feet back onto the floor and tossed his ice cream cone into the trash. “Good! Okay, let’s get down to business. I’m gonna build the biggest interstellar docking bay this side of the Divide. I’m gonna—”

Eric shook his head. “Newearth already has one of the largest docking bays this side of Bothmal. You really think that—”

“Shut up, imbecile. I have already thought this through. I’ve Ingots, Uanyi, and even a couple dozen Crestas ready to follow my lead. I just need someone I can trust.” He peered up at Eric’s impassive face. “You know, killing that crossbreed was my idea. Right wasn’t going to do it, but I showed her the logic of the situation, and besides, I wanted to see you in action.”

“I take it, I performed to your satisfaction.”

“Aw, don’t talk like that, like some cheap robot off a passing trader.” He clasped his hands, lacing his fingers together. “You’ve got to be perfectly straight with me. I need someone who’ll be my eyes and ears, listen, but never talk, except to me. You get the idea? I’m gonna make Newearth the greatest trading center in the universe. And that’ll make some high-profile personalities jealous. They’ll try to stop me or cut in and try to replace me. And I won’t stand for it!”

He waved to his wall of medals, attesting to his award-winning skill at Zinzinera, a tough, body-wrenching, head-cracking Ingoti game that many players never live to see through to the end.

“I’ve got the skills to make this happen. It’ll be good for Newearth, good for every trader who wants to increase business, good for you, and good for me.” He frowned. “There’s only one person who might give me serious trouble.”

Eric’s eyebrows rose. “Who might that be?”

Simms heaved himself out of his chair and strode over to his wall of trophies, studying them. “A Luxonian by the name of Cerulean. He’s been around a long time, since before the beginning—of Newearth, I mean. He’s got a reputation as a nice guy. But he isn’t. Trust me. He’s as dangerous as they come.” He swung around and faced Eric. “I want him outta my way.”

Eric folded his arms high across his chest. “Luxonians are hard to kill.”

“I didn’t say kill. I said I want him out of my way, traveling to foreign parts, or back on Lux—whatever. But wherever he is, I want you to keep your eyes on him. I want his reputation tarnished. I want everyone to see him for what he really is.”

“And what—exactly—is he?”

Simms shrugged. “He thinks he’s a guardian, a protector, like some Knight of OldEarth. But it’s all a lie. There are no heroes these days—they don’t exist.” Simms padded up to Eric and peered into his eyes. “Look into Cerulean’s soul and see what you find. Then report to me. We’ll find a way of destroying him—from the inside out.”

Eric unfolded his arms and nodded. “Simple enough.”

Simms shook his head. “Not simple. Necessary. How else will I get everyone to trust me?”

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

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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