Chapter 26

The walk to Zyken’s office took several minutes, and by the time we reached it I was completely lost. All these frigging Zargansk tunnels looked exactly the same. I doubted that even Eddie – brilliant Eddie – could get us out of this one if things went south.

The door to Zyken’s office was enormous. It stood well over ten feet tall, and its surface was engraved with a beautiful, intricate etching of what appeared to be the solar system. If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn the planets in the etching were actually moving.

I wanted to take a closer look, but Zyken opened the door with a quick flick of his wrist, causing the etching to disappear. The HIRCs escorting us stood aside as Zyken entered, followed in turn by Oz, Eddie, Kyralee, Rogi, and I. I noticed that Rogi cast a firm glance at each of the other HIRCs before the massive door slid shut behind us. Was there some kind of history between them?

A glance around Zyken’s office showed it to be large and relatively simple. A black, granite-looking desk dominated the far end of the circular room. The walls surrounding the office displayed all kinds of charts, pictures, diagrams, and scattered text. Zyken reached his desk, sat down, and – with another flick of his wrist – the walls turned blank. Behind me, Eddie exhaled heavily, and I realized he had a far better comprehension than I as to how technically advanced these alien gadgets were.

Zyken waved his hands in a rather elaborate gesture, and suddenly the silver floor in front of his desk began to glow and rise up. Five chairs, in a perfect semicircle around the desk, grew out of the ground.

He motioned for everyone present to sit.

“Organic titanium,” he said with a smile, sensing the awe on mine and Eddie’s faces. “Very expensive, but worth every penny.”

As soon as my butt hit the chair, it squirmed and adjusted itself to perfectly fit me. I don’t think I’d ever sat in a chair so comfortable.

I glanced around to check everyone else’s reactions, but only Eddie seemed to share my excitement. Kyralee still looked troubled, Oz looked stressed out of his mind, and Rogi’s expression was impossible to read behind his shawl.

I tried to focus my concentration as Zyken gestured toward Oz.

“Well? Do you want to begin, or should I?”

Oz shook his head.

“Very well, then. I will begin. Teal, Eddie, what do you know of the Zargansk?”

Eddie and I traded glances, and Eddie – following my shrug – began to speak.

“Well, sir, I probably know more than Teal, but it’s still not much.”

Zyken nodded for him to continue.

“Approximately 6000 years ago, a group of Zargansk scientists discovered Earth. These scientists were on a scientific exploration mission, and their job was to find life wherever and however they could. The size of our sun and the nature of the planets around it drew them to our solar system, and once they arrived they realized they’d hit the jackpot. Earth was covered in life.”

Eddie cast a furtive glance at me. I wondered how he knew all this – and why hadn’t he mentioned it before?

“These scientists stayed for many years, watching over Earth and carefully observing everything that lived here. They focused the majority of their attention on humans, who seemed to be very different from the other life forms these scientists had encountered during their trip across the galaxy.

“Unfortunately, the humans of six thousand years ago could be pretty nasty. The Zargansk scientists recorded a lot of horrible violence – not just between humans, but between humans and pretty much everything else on the planet. But they also realized that humans had enormous potential, especially as the development of written language picked up steam.

“This combination of violent tendencies and unrealized potential greatly worried the Zargansk scientists, who felt that if mankind continued to evolve naturally, it wouldn’t be long before they presented a possible threat to the Zargansk.”

Seriously? Was any of this true?

And if it was – what had prevented Eddie from revealing this earlier?

I had a sudden twinge of guilt as I considered all the things I had kept hidden from him, whether it was the strange time-stopping pocketwatch or my true feelings for Kyralee.

Maybe our friendship wasn’t as strong as I thought.

“These Zargansk scientists,” Eddie continued, oblivious to my sudden insecurity, “contacted their leaders with this information, and in response the government started the human ambassador program.”

“That is not correct,” Oz stated, leaning forward in his chair.

Zyken rolled his eyes.

“A trivial difference. Let the boy continue.”

“No,” Oz replied. “It is not trivial at all. Eddie, these scientists had no approval from our government to start that accursed ambassador program. They made the decision – selfishly and unethically – to start using human ambassadors in order to protect their own jobs. See, those scientists were paid an enormous sum of money for their work, and if they came back to the government with information about the danger that humans presented, Project Earth would have been shut down and the scientists’ funding would have disappeared.”

Oz seemed genuinely angry.

“So instead of doing what was right, they took matters into their own hands. That is how human enslavement to the Zargansk began. It was not ethical, it was not fair, and it never should have happened.”

Oz slunk back into his chair as Zyken laughed softly.

“As you can see, Oz feels rather strongly about this matter. But I suppose we will come to that in turn. Eddie, please continue.”

Eddie shook his head.

“I don’t know many details past that. I guess these scientists went ahead and started the ambassador program, where they would select humans at random and administer a terrible poison to them. The humans were to do whatever the Zargansk required – stuff like assassinations, destroying important inventions before they were public knowledge, starting wars, general trouble-causing – and in return the ambassadors would be given temporary antidotes for the sickness brewing inside them. If the humans didn’t do what the Zargansk required, the antidotes would not be administered and the poison would eventually kill them.

“The underground work of these ambassadors kept humans from ever becoming too strong, and I don’t know much more than that.”

Zyken nodded and gently clapped.

“Well-informed, boy. I am impressed. However, there is more you need to know before you can fully understand our interest in Teal’s father. Would you like to teach them, Oz?”

Oz said nothing, so Zyken smiled and continued.

“The ambassador intervention program – primitive and foolish though it may have been – worked very well. It was still in effect up until 600 years ago.”

“600 years ago?” I interjected. “But that’s when…”

A light went on in my head, and Zyken seemed to realize it.

“Yes, Teal. That is when humans began to experience exponential gains in the advancement of technology, literature, music, art, and many other things. Have you ever wondered why human society made very little sustained progress for tens of thousands of years, and then suddenly in the 15th and 16th century an unprecedented explosion of human progress took place?”

I nodded.

“Here is why. By 1400 CE – according to your human calendar – everyone in the Zargansk empire knew of Earth and its human race. Zargansk children learned of Earth’s continents, its mountains and oceans and climate and weather. Older students learned of human history, human anatomy, human language and culture. Our best scientists analyzed every detail of your species and your planet, while our politicians continued to argue over whether or not the humans were growing too strong.”

“But around 1400 CE, several scandals struck Project Earth and the scientists still studying your planet. You see, one of the empire’s youngest scientists– a clever Zargansk named Kepik Arist – had just joined Project Earth and learned of the ambassador program.

“Kepik was outraged to discover that such an underhanded, unethical thing like these ambassadors existed, and he immediately brought it to the attention of the Zargansk High Council – the main ruling body over the Zargansk empire. The council deliberated for many days, and more than once they came close to just annihilating your planet and forgetting about the entire thing.

“But cooler heads prevailed, and instead of destroying Earth, the council made the decision to completely change the way Project Earth was run. They began by firing the entire project leadership team and giving the title of Project Leader to young Kepik.”

“But they kept the ambassador program?” I asked, thinking immediately of my father.

“Yes,” Zyken answered. “They did. The council worried that if the ambassadors then employed were suddenly cured of their poison and released of their obligations, what would stop them from revealing us? If that happened, we would no longer be able to study Earth, and it might prompt the humans to began working on ways to destroy us – something the council feared terribly.”

“But we’re talking about the 1400’s,” Eddie responded. “Humans couldn’t fly, or travel into space – I mean, we hadn’t even discovered electricity yet! What could you have possibly worried about?”

Zyken smiled.

“An average Zargansk lives to be nearly a thousand Earth-years old. As far as we were concerned, if the humans evolved quickly enough, they could attack us within a single Zargansk lifetime. That was a risky proposition, even in 1400 CE.”

The average Zargansk lived to a thousand? Yikes.

“It was a difficult decision for the council to make,” Zyken continued, “and they did what they considered best. They made the decision to keep the human ambassador program in place – including, unfortunately, the poisoning aspect – but the scientists would use their ambassadors only for information. You see, we have incredible tools for studying humans, but nothing is as useful as regular interviews with real, living, breathing humans, and the council did not want to lose that asset.

“But they stopped forcing the ambassadors to interfere with human evolution, and as a result, the last 600 years have been phenomenal for your species. In my opinion, humans have progressed more in the last 600 years than in the previous 10,000 or even 100,000 years.”

“…So what do you Zargansk think about that?” I asked, worried what the answer might be.

Zyken shrugged.

“That is the real matter at hand. You see, the Zargansk do not agree as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, and you can imagine why.”

“I can,” I replied. “On the one hand, it’s a huge threat to your race that we’ve become so strong. But on the other hand, you must be learning a lot of things you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Zyken tried to reply but Oz interrupted.

“And Teal,” he said solemnly, “we Zargansk are not without morals, either. Many of us are pleased that humans are allowed to grow and evolve without us interfering. Not all Zargansk fear the humans; many, including myself, believe that when humans do finally discover our existence, we will be able to coexist peacefully.”

I smiled at Oz’s veiled compliment, then turned to Zyken.

“And what do you think?”

He sighed and leaned back in his chair.

“A valid question, Teal, but one that must wait just a little longer. More explanation is necessary, for which I apologize. I hope this does not bore you.”

Bore me? Heck no. This information was great – in fact, this was the only satisfying explanation I’d received since my life first started falling apart.

I just hoped it wouldn’t end like all my other would-be explanations: interrupted by a horrible crisis.

I glanced over at Eddie, who shrugged.

“Hey, don’t look at me,” he said. “I love this stuff.”

I turned back to Zyken.

“So some of the Zargansk were scared of human progress, but others thought it was okay?”

“Exactly. Many Zargansk liked Kepik and his innovative approach to Planet Earth. Kepik’s supporters felt that if the humans were allowed to evolve naturally, perhaps they would reach a point where they could teach us new things about life and technology and science. Indeed, that day has already come – many new Zargansk technologies are based on human ideas, such as the nanons invented by Doctor Oz.”

Eddie turned to Oz, his mouth agape.

You invented nanons?”

A thin smile crossed Oz’s crocodilian face.

“Wow! You must be rich!”

Zyken laughed.

“How very human of you,” he replied, “to immediately think in terms of monetary compensation. Yes, Oz has done quite well for himself, and his nanons – emnons in particular – have been very successful.”

Zyken and Oz both threw quick glances at Kyralee, and the gesture did not go unnoticed by me. I raised an eyebrow, but Zyken quickly resumed speaking.

“Let us return to the 15th century. For every Zargansk that supported Kepik, another despised him. Many felt that the ambassador program had been very successful and necessary, and without it we were unnecessarily endangering ourselves.

“However, the next several hundred years passed smoothly for mankind and Kepik’s supporters grew powerful. Humans made huge leaps in creating democratic governments, improving technology, and establishing the basic constructs of free society. The Zargansk High Council treated Kepik like a god – whatever he wanted or needed, he received. Project Earth became the most well-respected and well-funded project in Zargansk history.

“But trouble loomed on the horizon. In your 20th century, mankind did some things that made my people very, very nervous.”

Eddie suddenly giggled.

“I can imagine,” he said. “The last hundred years of humanity would make any extra-terrestrial nervous.”

Hearing Eddie say that momentarily shook me back to reality. I was sitting in a room with two extra-terrestrials – well, three if you counted Kyralee (which I still didn’t want to) – in a secret underground alien facility.

Surreal.

I tightened my right hand around a laser pistol… you know, just in case.

Zyken’s firm voice continued.

“Yes, Eddie. This last human century has been particularly troublesome. Nuclear technology, traveling into space, a worldwide computer network: many of these developments were totally unanticipated by our scientists. We have observed humans for almost six thousand years, and never have we seen you progress so quickly. During this last century, many Zargansk began to deeply fear humans and their growing capabilities.”

I thought back to what dad had told me at the hospital.

The Zargansk have always been afraid of us, Teal. They have always feared that someday we would grow strong and become a threat to their race.

Dad knew his stuff.

A sudden question struck me.

“So did the Zargansk blame Kepik for these human developments?”

Zyken nodded.

“Some did. Others considered it inevitable. Either way, your ’20th century’ marked the beginning of Kepik’s demise.”

Oz snorted.

“Demise? That is borderline blasphemy, Zyken. Kepik’s time is not over yet. The council will free him.”

“Be quiet,” Zyken commanded, this time sounding genuinely angry. “Treason is still a crime, Oz – even if it is committed by Kepik Arist.”

“He did not commit treason.”

“Talk back to me again and I will have you locked up with him,” Zyken replied, his sharp teeth bared and gleaming. “I am still your commanding officer.”

Oz smiled.

“You do not deserve the job, Zyken, and you know it. If you were half the scientist Kepik is–”

Zyken threw his hand under his desk and whipped out a shiny, all-black pistol. He leveled the weapon at Oz.

“Enough,” he growled. “I have kept you around for much too long. Your insubordination is every bit as troublesome as Kepik’s was.”

Oz remained silent as Zyken continued.

“You will leave the humans with me. I will finish this discussion, and you will return to your lab. My HIRCs will escort you – and if you try anything, I will make sure they kill you.”

“I will not leave the humans with you,” Oz replied, shaking his head. “You cannot be trusted with them.”

“Then you leave me no choice. Prepare to–”

“Wait!” I yelled, leaping from my chair and stepping between them. “Don’t shoot him! He’s just–”

Zyken’s fist lashed out, connecting with my chest before I could so much as blink. The force of his punch sent me flying across the room until I smashed, painfully, into Kyralee’s chair. She gasped and recoiled as Eddie and Rogi both leapt out of their chairs, weapons leveled at Zyken.

Pain seared through my chest and left arm.

“Ugh…” I grunted as Kyralee pulled me to my feet.

But Zyken only laughed.

“Stupid human. You know so little of my people. I will no longer waste my time trying to coerce you into helping me. You will help me, or I will see to it that you, your friends, and your precious father all die.”

Rage burned inside me.

“Try it, Zyken. You don’t stand a chance. There are five of us and only one of you.”

Zyken smiled and snapped his free hand. The door to his office opened and the HIRCs waiting outside poured into the room. There were at least a dozen of them, and every one carried a large weapon of some sort.

I could only groan.

“You planned this all along.”

He smiled.

“Too trusting, boy. Always too trusting, and that is why you humans will never, ever be able to defeat the Zargansk at anything. Like Oz, you are much too naïve.”

He turned to the HIRCs.

“Take their weapons and escort all of them – including Oz and his HIRC assistant – to the brig. I will need some time to decide their fates.”

“But sir,” one of the HIRCs replied, “the brig is quite small, and it already contains the humans we captured earlier.”

Humans captured earlier? But who…

Oh, crap. I’d completely forgotten about Cierra and Danny.

“I do not care how small it is,” Zyken replied. “Pack them in if you must, and if there is not room then kill some. You can pick which.”

I scowled and tightened my grip on both guns when Oz sent me a firm glance.

Wait, he mouthed.

I debated ignoring the old Zargansk scientist – since how could he be trusted? – but something about Oz still seemed genuine.

Hoping I wouldn’t regret the decision, I relinquished my pistols.

The HIRCs whisked us away.



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