Author’s Note: So after deciding what I wanted for the Wednesday wardrobe piece today, I changed my mind about how much I’d shared on Monday for Monday Mayhem/Mystery, and I decided to repost to do the whole scene. Actually… I’m going to go with the the scene before it and the full scene.
“I think I’m going to bet on this new joint effort for peace being an abysmal failure.”
Pellton looked over at his younger teammate, tempted to laugh, though the situation was far from amusing. They needed peace, needed the joint venture to work, but they all knew that it was going to be difficult. Impossible, maybe, if one thought about it the way that Zenith did. Pellton could tell him to do all that he could to make it work, to give it every effort to help it succeed, but Zenith would do the opposite. Some would blame his age, though he was no longer a child, and the debate over whether or not he belonged on the team would start all over again.
“Your anger will not change our assignment,” Chuitanya said, glancing back over her shoulder. The Chular led them most of the time, their longer legs dictating their pace—not that most humans would be willing to let one of them walk behind them, no matter how much they wanted a joint venture to succeed. Her eyes thinned to slits before she turned away from the humans. Her scales caught the sunlight and changed colors to a shimmering, almost blinding green that had Zenith moving to shield his eyes from the glare.
“I’m not angry,” Zenith corrected, adjusting his coat as he spoke. “This kind of petty crime is a waste of the resources they’re always fighting about. The Integrated Division doesn’t have limitless funding or universal support. How many times do they spout that at me? At least once a week, isn’t it?”
Pellton shook his head. The resources they lectured Zenith on had little to do with money or approval. Their team was smaller than most, comprised of only two Chular and two humans, but they had things that no other team did all the same. That inequality created a lot of impatience that didn’t help when things were already strained in their office.
He was relieved to be out of it no matter what the reason.
“It’s a theft, and eyewitnesses said it was done by humans. That means that humans should investigate it,” Chutresh said, his scales shifting to a shade that matched his mate.
Zenith reached into his pockets, checking each of them, and shook his head when the object he sought was not there. “I hate that this place doesn’t have sunglasses. With those two around, it’s a wonder we’re not both blind by now.”
Pellton chose not to say anything to that. He didn’t know that he could—he didn’t have the same visual acuity as the other man, but reminding Zenith of that would only anger him. “This is better than being in the office, isn’t it?”
Zenith gave him a look. “Don’t say that like you wouldn’t be home with your wife if you had a choice. I don’t want to know what those two do on their days off, but at least you have a home and a family.”
“I have a choice,” Pellton said, keeping his voice as gentle as he could, not wanting to make an issue of it—they did well as a team despite the fact that none of them would have picked the others for their teammates. They might have agreed to work for the new division, but that didn’t mean that they had any say in how the division worked. “This joint effort is important to me.”
Zenith’s jaw tightened. “Sometimes I forget that you were born here.”
No one could forget that Zenith hadn’t been.
“We are close?” Chuitanya asked, trying to divert the conversation from that unpleasant topic.
Zenith closed his eyes, muttering the address to himself and pointing to a side street. “There. The house is the first on the right. On the north side of the street for you Chular.”
Chutresh started to hiss, but he stopped himself. They did not argue with Zenith if they could avoid it, and most of the time, they could. The human still did his best to provoke them, but then there was a great deal of unhappiness in him, and Pellton thought even the Chular could forgive him for his attitude.
“We must verify that this theft was truly done by a human. If it was not, then we do not need to waste any resources,” Chuitanya said, though suggesting turning this over to the regular Chular police force wasn’t the best idea, either, even if Zenith had objected to this assignment.
Chutresh stepped forward, using his reptilian strength to remove the broken door out of their path, and Zenith shook his head as he bypassed him, going to stand in the middle of the room. Pellton waited for Chuitanya to enter before he joined the other man.
“Do I have to do everything? The chair is broken. Why don’t you start with that?”
Pellton grunted. Just because the object had been knocked over sometime recently did not mean that what they wanted was there. Zenith could have narrowed their focus more than that, but he was in a mood again.
Kneeling down next to the chair, Pellton touched his hand to the back of it and came away with the distinctive feel of left behind genetic material, a sensation both familiar and disconcerting. He frowned, rubbing his fingers together, trying to be certain of what he was reading.
“What is it?”
One thing the Chular female could do—she seemed to always pick up on shifts in their moods, knew when something was wrong when they weren’t saying anything.
Pellton glanced toward Zenith and back at her. “I’ve got a human, yes.”
“Well, I guess we get to work this after all.”
“What is wrong with this human? You seem… concerned.”
“It’s… I’ve never seen this before,” Pellton said, because he hadn’t and he shouldn’t be seeing it now. He tested it a third time. Either someone had found a way to manipulate his modification, or the results were the same. “The human is an unmodified one.”
“Cullings were outlawed over a century ago.”
The words were hissed with reptilian displeasure, Chuitanya’s nostrils flaring and scales rippling as she spoke. She bared her claws, standing to her full height as she exchanged a look with her mate. Pellton turned away, not wanting to watch the two of them deal with her emotions the only way the Chular knew how. He was trying to work a case here, not get caught up in angry politics again. He wanted no part of that. He just wanted to do his job and get home to his own mate.
Days like this, he regretted agreeing to join the newly fledged Integrated Division, but he’d been around long enough to know that if change was ever going to happen on this planet, it had to be with both parties working together, regardless of past atrocities and broken treaties. This new investigative force needed to succeed, or they’d end up backsliding back to a century ago and the warfare that had led to this unpleasant situation in the first place.
So he pretended he wasn’t bothered by the Chular, and the Chular pretended that he was more than a living computer, and it almost worked.
“That doesn’t change what I’m getting from this,” Pellton said, rubbing his fingers together as his body processed and cataloged the genetics he’d found at the scene of the crime. Their thief was a man in his late forties with light hair and eyes, without gifts or shackles. “This guy was pure human, no alterations or modifications, which we all know is impossible.”
“Impossible because the Chular say they stopped, not because that is true.”
That made all of them wince—even if Chular winced in a way that didn’t look much like it to humans. Coming from their youngest member, it was a harsh critique, should have made both of the aliens angry, but no one could argue with the proof standing right next to them. Zenith was not yet thirty, yet he carried the bitterness of a man three times his age, the dangerously unhappy product of an illegal culling that ripped him away from his entire family and trapped him here.
“If someone has started culling again, we’re going to find them and stop it,” Pellton told the other man, touching his arm.
Zenith threw his hand off, eyes dark with barely contained rage. “Just because we stop them from getting more doesn’t do anything to help the people they’ve already taken, and we don’t even know that this guy knows anything about the ones that brought him here.”
“He got away from them without being modified,” Chuitanya said. “That is very rare.”
Zenith might have gone for her, but Pellton caught his arm again, looking the other man in the eyes, hoping to make him think and calm himself. “Don’t.”
The other man closed his eyes, breathing hard as he struggled to bring his emotions under control. Pellton did not offer any comfort or platitudes—those tended to have the opposite effect on Zenith. He did not pretend to understand what Zenith felt. He was third generation, born modified because his parents and grandparents were, not like Zenith, who’d been normal until he was culled. He did not know how he would react if he’d been in Zenith’s place, nor did he want to. His life had been good.
“I doubt you want to hear it, but they may take this man and any like him back,” Chutresh said, retracting his claws, making no move to get closer to their youngest member. “They are not modified. That is different from what bars you from returning to your homeworld and your family.”
Zenith hissed a curse in Chular, and the others flinched. They considered their language sacred, unlike the modifiers who had forced Zenith to use it and only it, despite lacking the right skull shape to reproduce the sounds the lizards made.
Pellton let go of his arm, turning to look at the Chular. He figured it would be better if they said nothing for a while. They had not been a part of what happened to Zenith, but they were a constant reminder of it. What they had thought might appease him did not—he would not have been comforted to know that those culled could return home, not when he could not, nor would it be enough to stop those who were culling in violation of the law—they could not give him back all that had been taken from him or undo what had been done to him.
“We can wait outside,” Chuitanya offered. “Would you prefer this?”
Pellton turned to Zenith. This was his decision. He did not care if they left, but the other man might. “Your choice. We’re going to need whatever you can get from here.”
Zenith grimaced. Half the reason he was still alive was because his modifiers hadn’t stopped with one upgrade—they’d pushed his body to its limit with them, and he was a better living machine than Pellton in all but one aspect. His way of learning genetics was too unpleasant to be used on a regular basis. Then again, Pellton sometimes thought that Zenith wouldn’t use any of his augments if he could avoid it.
“He wasn’t alone,” Zenith said, eyes closed, pointing to the desk. “The last time anyone was here before them was well over three months ago, based on the amount of dust and the life cycle of the insects around here.”
“Any idea what made them come here?”
“Near starvation, probably,” Zenith answered, looking over at the Chular. “You didn’t need me to tell you that. The fact that they weren’t modified means their cullers were either killed or arrested before they could modify them. They won’t trust your kind.”
“Hence the theft,” Pellton said. He touched the genetic marker left behind by the other thief. Female. Late twenties. He frowned when he failed to get more from the genetics. He had only experienced that one other time.
He crossed back to Zenith, taking a sample from him and frowning.
Chutresh and Chuitanya hissed with concern. “What is it? Why would you need Zenith for a baseline?”
Pellton ran his fingers over what was on the desk from the woman’s contact with it. She’d gouged the wood—and he should have had plenty to work with. Sample size was not the problem. “She’s not showing up—I can get a sense only that she’s female and in her twenties which shouldn’t be possible, either. Genetics carry the whole code.”
“Unless the code is so modified that it isn’t recognizable,” Zenith said. He shook his head. “I can’t help you with the analysis there. Except… maybe she’s a shifter. Their genetics tend to be in flux, so they’re harder to read, right?”
“Shifters do not have long life-spans. Can you tell anything of her? She may already be ill.”
Zenith looked to Pellton. “You want to follow them, or you want an analysis of what’s here? You won’t get both.”
“We should trail them while we can. This place isn’t going anywhere.”
The other man nodded, leaving the room.