Chapter 27

TUESDAY, MAY 17th

For once, I paid close attention during the trip from Zyken’s office to the brig, taking copious mental notes on every turn, every door, every direction. I wasn’t about to let the Zargansk or their HIRCs catch me unprepared again.

The brig was little more than another bare, silver-walled room with an especially thick door on it. The HIRC in the lead opened the door with a quick wave of his hand, and then Eddie, Kyralee, and I were ushered swiftly inside. Oz followed behind us, and Rogi received an especially hard push from one of the other HIRCs as he entered.

Then, with a laugh, they sarcastically waved good-bye as the huge metal door snapped silently shut.

On the far side of the room lay two figures. One was short, male, and uncannily gorilla-like. The other was female, tall and slim, with long auburn hair and the face of an angel.

“Cierra! Danny!”

If either of them had any realization of our arrival, they didn’t show it. Both Cierra’s and Danny’s eyes remained closed – probably sleeping – and they looked peaceful and comfortable.

This wasn’t surprising. If I’d had the chance, I would have taken a nap myself. A quick glance at my watch showed the time as 12:03 Tuesday morning.

I decided to let them rest.

“Well,” I said quietly, turning to Oz. “This room isn’t as small as Zyken made it sound.”

“Not yet, Teal – but it will be. Watch the walls closely.”

I raised an eyebrow but obeyed.

It took a minute before I noticed – mostly because the motion was so subtle – but eventually it hit me.

See, the walls of this room weren’t normal.

They were moving.

“What the…?”

“All Zargansk brigs are this way. They start out large so that officers can pack in as many people as possible, then shrink until their inhabitants are smashed tightly together.”

Oz sighed heavily.

“Newer models base their size on how many inhabitants are currently inside them, but older ones – like this – simply shrink to pre-specified dimensions. Let us hope it is not too small.”

Lovely. And to think – the Zargansk thought humans were the twisted ones.

Another nervous glance confirmed Oz’s explanation. The room was slowly but definitely shrinking, bringing Danny and Cierra ever closer.

Despite this, they remained silent and asleep, more like statues than humans.

I was glad Cierra had a chance to rest, but as for Danny…

Well, part of me wanted to give him a solid kick in the gut. What a jerk.

But I refrained, and instead took a moment to inventory the rest of my “team.” Eddie had taken a seat in front of the door, where he looked deep in thought. Rogi leaned against the far wall with his eyes closed, and Kyralee stood quietly by herself, her arms folded and head bowed. I wondered if she was praying.

It was an odd moment. The room was so quiet, so peaceful. I was surrounded by people I cared about – people that had saved my life, and I in turn had saved some of theirs. Some of these people I had just met, while at least one had known me for the better part of my life.

My gaze drifted across the scene again, this time pausing at the Zargansk scientist named Oz.

I took a moment to reevaluate his alien appearance. It surprised me, but he looked very different from Zyken. Oz looked to be six-and-a-half feet tall, maybe closer to seven. Zyken was at least a foot taller. Oz’s skin was pale gray and leathery, while Zyken’s had been dark and shiny. Zyken had brilliant silver hair that ran from the crest of his head to the center of his back. Oz’s hair was dull white, thin, and it terminated at his shoulders.

Really, neither looked that different from us. Two arms, two legs, two eyes and a mouth. The blunt crocodilian snout was certainly a discrepancy, but all things considered, the Zargansk looked a lot more like humans than I’d expected.

Oz seemed to sense my gaze, but I glanced away before we made eye contact.

And then there was Kyralee. Beautiful, mysterious Kyralee.

She represented so many questions, so many uncertainties… yet I couldn’t help but trust her. Eddie had his misgivings – and I didn’t blame him – but I couldn’t ignore the fact that she’d clearly saved my life at Megamart. Twice. That alone gave me reason to trust her now.

Kyralee also sensed my gaze, and this time I wasn’t fast enough to glance elsewhere. She made eye contact and smiled, sending more than one flutter across my stomach. We both looked quickly away, but that smile gave me the courage I needed to walk over to her.

“So, Lee… how are you feeling?”

“I have been better.”

“Yeah, I hear you there.”

“Of course you hear me – you are standing right here.”

“No, I mean… never mind. Your first day on Earth has been pretty strange, huh?”

She smiled and nodded.

“What do you think of Earth so far? Is it like Orionis?”

“Yes, they are very similar. What I have seen of Earth seems nice. Unfortunately, most of my time here has been spent unconscious or in these terrible Zargansk tunnels.”

She shivered, then unexpectedly added, “I hate Zyken.”

“Me too,” I replied. “He seemed alright at first, but obviously that’s not the case. What’s his story?”

Oz, who had apparently overheard, stepped over to us.

“Zyken is a master liar, Teal. If you remember anything I share with you, make it this: do not trust Zyken or anyone that looks like him.”

“Anyone that looks like him?”

Oz nodded.

“His silver hair and dark gray skin are the marks of a Qarmed.”

“So he’s not a Zargansk?”

“No, you misunderstand. The Qarmeds are not a separate species. They are a Zargansk race – an old one, perhaps the oldest of all. Many years ago they ruled as kings over my people, but when they were overthrown and the Council was established in their place, the Qarmeds who remained were hated and alienated.

“For many of my people, such hatred has never left. The Qarmeds alive today are well aware of this, and they would do anything to restore their former glory, whether it be lying, cheating, stealing, murdering…”

Oz’s mouth twitched as he spoke that last word.

“Regardless,” he continued, “there is a common saying among members of my clan: never trust a Qarmed. I would pass that wisdom on to you.”

I nodded.

“So what’s the story with Zyken?” I asked. “How does a guy like that – a Qarmed – get put in charge of a guy like you? I mean, you invented nanons! Shouldn’t you be in charge?”

“Zyken maybe be evil, but his intelligence and drive are unmatched,” Oz replied, shaking his head as he spoke. “Unmatched by everyone but perhaps Kepik Arist – which is particularly ironic, since Zyken was chosen to replace Kepik when the good doctor was imprisoned. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Zyken, and the end of an era for Project Earth.”

He said that like it was something profoundly tragic.

“Does this tie into the end of Zyken’s story?” I asked. “What happened after the Zargansk got worried about humans and all their inventions?”

“Let me finish the story for you,” he replied.

“As humans became ever stronger and more advanced, the Zargansk High Council split into two groups: one that supported Kepik and ongoing human progress, and one that sternly opposed it. Within these two camps were many subgroups – some wanted to contact the humans, others wanted to destroy them; some wanted to reinstate the ambassador program the way it had been used before and others wanted to remove ambassadors completely. You humans, without ever knowing it, nearly tore our government apart.

“The arguing continued until your father escaped,” Oz continued, looking directly at me. “That single event was, as you humans say, the straw the broke the camel’s back. Kepik’s enemies – led by Zyken – argued that he and Project Earth had grown far too independent, and Kepik needed to be punished for helping your father escape. Kepik’s supporters claimed that Kepik was not guilty at all – and in fact, this would be the perfect time to peaceably contact the humans.”

“What did Kepik say?”

“Nothing. He neither admitted to nor denied the accusations made against him, and the Council dissolved into chaos trying to acquit or condemn him.”

“But Kepik is imprisoned now,” Eddie chimed in as he rose and walked over to us. “So that must mean his enemies eventually won.”

Oz shrugged.

“Yes and no. The High Councilor – a very wise Zargansk – felt it prudent to place Kepik under house arrest while an investigation was made into Cronus’s escape. The investigation committee was supposedly set up as an independent group, but both Kepik’s supporters and enemies attempted to sway the committee with money, threats, and any other means they could concoct.

“The committee dissolved after a matter of months, claiming an inability to proceed because they feared for their safety. Kepik was imprisoned for his own good; had he remained free, his enemies would have undoubtedly found a way to hurt him.”

“How long ago did that happen?” I asked.

“Kepik has been in prison for less than a week, but tomorrow will mark six months since he was placed under house arrest. I remember because it is exactly one month longer than the time I have been stuck working here.”

“Stuck?” Kyralee asked. “You didn’t want to be part of Project Earth?”

Oz laughed and shrugged.

“Initially I wanted nothing more. When Kepik was placed under house arrest, Zyken – as the temporary leader of Project Earth – immediately took it upon himself to drastically change the way the project was run. He began recruiting some of the best minds in the empire to join Project Earth – including myself – claiming that with our help, he would be able to get better information than ever before as to how dangerous the human threat was. He recruited us with promises of prestige and fame, and I, like a fool, ignored my own advice and trusted him. It was a terrible mistake.”

“How so?” asked Eddie. “I mean, is Project Earth really that bad?”

“Oh no, not at all; I quite enjoy most aspects of my work, particularly the ability to study Earth and its inhabitants. However, Zyken has blackmailed us into doing things we would never do otherwise. These things… they are terrible. Truly terrible.”

Oz shuddered and sent a sideways glance at Kyralee.

“Look, Oz,” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity any longer. “Why do you keep giving Kyralee weird glances? Is something wrong with her?”

He sent me a concerned glare.

“It is complicated. Kyralee, do you remember why you traveled to Earth?”

She thought for a moment before shaking her head.

“No. There is a black spot in my memory for everything that happened before I met Teal and Eddie.”

She closed her eyes and brought a hand to her forehead.

“But I still have long-term memories: I remember home, my family, my childhood – but for the week before I met these two, I cannot remember anything.”

Oz bit his lower lip as Lee scrunched her face in effort.

“Ugh! No matter how hard I try, I cannot remember that week! What is wrong with me?”

Oz’s face hinted at a smile before returning to seriousness.

“Nothing is wrong, Kyralee. In fact, you should be grateful things turned out this way. You do not want to remember what happened during that week. It was…”

But Oz was interrupted by the sudden arrival of Danny and Cierra’s sleeping bodies. The room had shrunk from its initial size of twenty feet across to less than ten, and Danny was now being awkwardly pressed into Oz’s leg. The scientist stepped aside and frowned as he glanced around the room.

Unfortunately, the walls didn’t seem to be stopping. It was time to wake our sleeping roommates.

I started with Cierra – first a gentle tap, then a shake of her shoulders.

“Cierra. Wake up!”

Another shake.

“C’mon! It’s me, Teal!”

More shaking yielded no results. Maybe she was a heavy sleeper.

Not wanting to be the one to wake her from such a deep sleep, I turned my attention to Danny.

“Hey, Danny – get up.”

He didn’t respond.

“Danny! GET UP!”

Still nothing. What was going on?

“Oz, is something wrong with them? Have they been drugged?”

Oz bent down and pried open one of Danny’s eyes.

“Ah – they appear to have been given a special type of nanon I call sleepers. Sleepers subdue the brain for several hours without any negative side-effects. I am quite proud of them.”

Oz checked both Cierra and Danny’s pulses before continuing.

“No need to be concerned. They are still breathing, their health is fine – they are merely unconscious.”

This comment gave me a sudden, tempting idea. I poked Danny in the shoulder. As expected, he didn’t respond.

Hehehe.

I smiled, then poked Danny in his ample gut. Eddie noticed this and giggled.

“I want a turn!” he said, already running to join in.

Oz, however, did not look pleased, and he seized Eddie’s wrist immediately.

“Do not touch them! What on Orionis are you thinking?”

“You don’t understand!” Eddie replied. “This kid is the nastiest human you’ve ever met! He totally deserves to be messed with!”

“That does not matter to me. I cannot allow you to interact with them.”

Eddie wrenched his arm free and scowled.

“Fine. But he really deserves–”

Oz sent Eddie a withering glare, and – remarkably – he stopped talking.

Just then, the room shook slightly. I thought it might be another earthquake of some sort, but a quick survey of the walls revealed something much better: the room had finally stopped shrinking. Thank goodness.

By now it was less than eight feet square, and with Danny and Cierra still lying across one side of the room, the rest of us were forced to stand together in a tight clump. I hoped this wouldn’t last for much longer, but I had no good ideas for escaping. Honestly, I doubted escape was even a possibility – after all, the Zargansk must have considered that when they built this horrible contraption.

So instead I looked at Kyralee, expecting her to ask Oz more about what had happened to her memory.

But before she could continue, Eddie interrupted the silence with another question of his own.

“So Oz, where do the HIRCs fit into the story? Rogi said that HIRC stands for Human Involvement, Reporting, and Containment, and that it has some kind of connection to Zyken’s work on human hybridization. What does that mean?”

Oz shook his head.

“Zyken has a powerful, insatiable appetite for pushing limits. He is a firm believer that if something can be done, it should be done, and that it is a scientist’s job to test anything and everything he can possibly conceive.

“Before joining Project Earth, Zyken ran a private research company whose stated mission was to explore possible avenues for life extension. Wealthy Zargansk who feared death poured unimaginable amounts of money into his research, and he used that money to perform any number of terrible, unthinkable experiments on ‘volunteer’ subjects – mostly poor, homeless Zargansk who were unlikely to be missed.”

He shuddered.

“No one knows for certain what went on in Zyken’s private laboratory, but knowing him as I do, I can almost guarantee it was not ethical – if even legal.

“Regardless, when Kepik – who had heard of Zyken’s work ethic and brilliance – approached him with a job at Project Earth, Zyken accepted straightaway. He closed down his company and joined the Project Earth team within hours of Kepik’s invitation.”

“Why did he do that?” I asked. “Does he make more money working here?”

“No, he does not, so the question of why he accepted Kepik’s request is a good one. No one is sure of the answer, but there are some convincing theories going around.”

I didn’t see how this related to Eddie’s original question about the HIRCs, but having this background information on Zyken couldn’t hurt.

“Many Zargansk,” Oz continued, “suspect that Zyken joined Project Earth for one of two reasons. First, there is good evidence that the authorities were beginning to suspect Zyken and his research facilities, and it was only a matter of time before he was caught performing illegal experiments. Project Earth provided a safe way for him to close down his facility without angering all the people that had poured so much money into it; he simply assured his shareholders that after several years at Project Earth, he would have the knowledge and resources he needed to complete work on unlocking immortality. Everyone bought that story, and Zyken escaped any potential inquiries into his work.

“Reason number two: Zyken saw Project Earth as a chance to test even more terrible and dangerous things – worse than he had tried on his fellow Zargansk – on humans. Sadly, humans are much more disposable than Zargansk as far as the law is concerned, and Zyken saw this as a perfect solution.”

“…What exactly did he want to try on humans that he couldn’t do to Zargansk?” asked Eddie.

“Any number of things. Laws on Zargansk experimentation are very strict; every test has to be approved by multiple government organizations, and that can take years. Zyken hated waiting for permission – especially since permission rarely came for what he requested – and since only Kepik was required to approve tests on abducted humans, Zyken expected to have a great deal of freedom. He was especially eager to try things like merging human and Zargansk DNA, grafting mechanical parts onto organic creatures, administering strange combinations of psychologically damaging drugs… the list goes on and on.”

Eddie shot a knowing glance at me, and I caught his drift. This explained the disgusting HIRC we encountered in the school hallway.

I shuddered at the memory.

“When Kepik found out what Zyken was doing,” Oz continued, “he immediately forced him to stop. Zyken was livid with Kepik, and it is fairly clear that after this happened, he started working on getting Kepik removed as head of Project Earth. Zyken sowed baseless rumors about Kepik being a traitor to his own people, and when Teal’s father disappeared, it was Zyken who led the campaign to have Kepik arrested.”

Every time I heard about the grief dad’s escape caused the Zargansk, I felt my spirits lift. Served them right for trying to turn him into one of their slaves.

But immediately following that tinge of joy was a wave of grief. A lot of time had passed since I’d seen my dad, and he couldn’t be doing well. At least we were close to finding him an antidote – and we wouldn’t even have to go through a portalgate to get one!

Unfortunately, those antidotes were entirely out of reach until we found a way out of this room… and that looked to be a serious problem. I let my mind drift away from Oz’s story as I started pondering possible escape plans.

“Once Kepik was imprisoned,” Oz continued, “Zyken assumed control over Project Earth, and he immediately began working to undermine the Council. Zyken must have realized that if the Council fell into disarray, there was a good chance the current High Councilor would be removed, and Zyken’s rising popularity made him a strong contender for the position. In fact, the only person more likely than Zyken to fill the role was Kepik Arist.”

“Ah, I see!” said Eddie. “If Zyken could finish off Kepik and get rid of the current High Councilor, he would be king of the empire.”

Oz nodded.

“A nightmarish thought. If Zyken took over as High Councilor, it would be a terrible day for both humans and Zargansk. Zyken would declare war on Earth, then use that as an excuse to dissolve the Council and take total control over my people. The results would be disastrous.”

He paused and cleared his throat. I turned to find him staring at me.

“I apologize that this explanation is taking so long, Teal. I am almost done.”

“Oh, no worries. I’m just trying to find a way out of here.”

Oz smiled at me the way a parent smiled at a daughter requesting a pony for her birthday. It was irritatingly patronizing, but I kept my mouth shut. He was a lot more imposing since I’d lost my Zargansk weapons.

“To make a long story short,” he continued, “Zyken immediately took his best scientists – including myself – and put us to work studying humans and their fantastic minds. Little did we know it then, but Zyken wanted to know how to beat your people if it came to that. He wanted to know your strengths and weaknesses, and he used the greatest minds in the empire to study such things.

“My expertise in particular allowed Zyken to try new human experiments never before possible, and the HIRCs were indeed an offshoot of this, as you will shortly understand.

“With our help, Zyken tried everything possible on abducted humans, as there was no longer anyone around to tell him ‘no.’ When experiments failed, he would freeze the test subjects’ bodies cryogenically, as a backup in case he someday needed spare parts.”

That sounded downright horrible.

“Several weeks ago I stumbled onto a way to use nanons to alter human consciousness, the first draft being the stunning nanons used on the other humans here,” he said, motioning toward Danny and Cierra. “I also thought these nanons could be used to reprogram certain parts of the human mind, a truth I later discovered was only partially true. Rogi here was the first test subject of those nanons.”

All of us turned to look at the lanky HIRC still leaning calmly against the wall.

“What’s his story?” Eddie asked.

“Rogi,” Oz explained, “was part of an experiment to graft mechanical muscles onto an existing organic musculature. Zyken hoped that such experiments would lead to a race of superfast, superstrong warriors. He was partially correct.

“The experiments were a success in that Rogi gained extreme agility and strength – but, as always, these gifts came with a cost. After Zyken realized that the human body was simply not equipped to power additional mechanical muscles, he was forced to implant chemical batteries directly into Rogi’s chest. These batteries must be periodically recharged if Rogi wishes to use his extra functionality.”

An interesting revelation. This explained Rogi’s impossible speed and agility.

“But if Rogi was Zyken’s test subject,” I asked, “why does he work for you?”

“I had taken a liking to Rogi ever since I rescued him from Zyken’s ungodly testing – another story for another day – and I was hoping to use my new mind-altering nanons to erase all memories of the experiments he had been forced to undergo. Such memories, which were beyond horrifying, had caused Rogi intense psychological trauma. It was my hope to free him from such pain.”

Oz’s expression suddenly soured.

“My nanons worked, but not at all how I expected. Apparently a human’s ability to feel emotion is directly tied to memories. The nanons were successful in erasing most of Rogi’s experimentation memories, but this had the unintended side-effect of rendering him incapable of feeling emotion. The only quasi-emotion he can presently feel is a strong loyalty to me, and I have no idea why that is.”

Oz sighed and shook his head.

“Anyway, HIRC is a generic name Zyken has given to any testing rejects endowed with a special variation of mind-altering nanons. This type of nanon, as programmed by Zyken, has allowed him to make HIRCs into his own personal army. They will do whatever he wants – such as tracking you down, Teal – and their inability to feel emotion makes them very effective soldiers.”

Any guilt I’d felt at blasting so many of those HIRCs disappeared. Destroying zombie/mutant/cyborgs brainwashed into serving a crazed alien megalomaniac was nothing short of noble.

Suddenly Danny groaned, startling everyone. He stretched out his arms and rolled over, then – lucky for us – slipped back asleep.

“Er, once he wakes up it’s gonna get really unpleasant in here,” I said to no one in particular. “What are our chances of escaping this place?”

Oz shook his head.

“Not good. The only way in or out is through that door, which is solidly locked.”

“What about nanons?” Eddie asked. “Do you have more?”

Oz shook his head.

I turned to Kyralee.

“Do you still have your fire silex?”

She nodded. I checked my own pockets, and discovered I still had three broken silexes and the crazy time-stopping Zargansk watch dad had left me. My back pocket still had the metal pole with the janitor’s orb inside, and my backpack – which the HIRCs had surprisingly not taken – had another one of those metal poles, a small key, and that strange gold note. I debated taking the note out and reading it when suddenly the room began expanding.

We all glanced at Oz.

“Does this mean…?”

“Yes. Someone is coming.”

Danny and Cierra slid gracefully away as the floor stretched outward. Kyralee, Eddie, Rogi, Oz and I formed a rough semicircle around the door, and before it opened I took the opportunity to lean over and whisper to Lee.

“I hope that fire of yours can save me one more time.”

She smiled and blushed slightly, and I felt my spirits lift.

Maybe we’d escape this yet.



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