Chapter 23

The HIRC named Rogi moved quickly through the tunnels. At times Eddie and I had to jog to keep up.

We had been following him for several minutes when Eddie suddenly leaned in toward me.

“This tunnel network is massive,” he whispered. “There must be miles of passages down here.”

I nodded, glad that he’d finally chosen to talk to me again.

“Why would they need so many tunnels?”

He shrugged and shook his head.

Ahead, Rogi slowed his pace and turned right. We turned to follow, then stopped. Something here was different.

It took me a moment to realize it, but the tunnels had gradually become lit. Again, there were no actual lights – instead, just an ambient red glow that mysteriously filled our surroundings.

Rogi placed the glowing object from his right hand into a pocket. I suddenly realized it was a silex. He had magic too.

Great.

Without turning around, Rogi motioned to a door at the end of the tunnel.

“Kyralee is in there with a Zargansk scientist. I promise you safety, but you must refrain from shooting.”

“What?” Eddie gasped. “A Zargansk?! You lied to us!”

“I did not lie to you, Eddie. Despite what you may have heard or read, not all Zargansk want to kill humans.”

“Like Kepik Arist,” I said, remembering my dad’s admonition to find the Zargansk doctor with that name.

“Yes, Teal. There are more Zargansk like Kepik Arist, including the one you are about to meet. He does not mean you any harm, and he did not mean Kyralee any harm. We brought her here for her own safety.”

My mind stuttered upon hearing this sudden deluge of admissions. Why was the HIRC telling us this?

“Rogi? Can you turn around?”

He nodded, slowly rotating his lanky form until he faced us.

The rogue HIRC’s clothes were simple: black slacks with a plain black blazer over a partially buttoned white shirt. I was no suit connoisseur, but his blazer looked pretty much identical to the blazers worn by all the other HIRCs.

But it wasn’t his clothes that caught my attention – it was the strange crimson scarf around the lower half of his face. The cloth looked to be thin but rigid, and Rogi wore it loosely around his mouth and nose. The purplish-red color of the scarf made a stark contrast with his short black hair and semi-formal attire.

Why on earth would he wear a scarf, especially since it was warm both outside and inside the tunnels? My thoughts flashed back to the distorted face of the HIRC in the upstairs hallway, leading me to wonder what was hiding behind Rogi’s shawl.

I chased the image out of my mind.

“We are taking a great risk in trusting you, Rogi. Please don’t betray that trust.”

He nodded and bowed slightly, then turned and approached the silver door at the end of the tunnel. He gently knocked before opening it and walking inside.

I took a deep breath and followed behind.

I spotted Kyralee immediately. She was lying quietly on a bare metal table in the distant corner of the room, and although she looked groggy and disheveled, she was most definitely alive. I smiled at her and she smiled in return. My heart fluttered.

Thank God she was alright.

“Ah, Teal and Eddie. At last.”

I reluctantly pulled my eyes from Lee and swiveled to find the source of this new voice. I found it just five feet to my right, and when I did it was all I could do to keep from turning and running for my life.

…It was one of them.

A Zargansk.

My brain seemed to process the visuals in slow-motion. Seven feet tall. Dressed in a white lab coat. Pale gray skin that looked leathery and wrinkled; coarse white hair covering the arms and crest of its head. Two arms, long and sinuous, each terminating in pointy, five-fingered hands. Large feet in white boots.

A mix of fascination and revulsion swarmed over me.

I turned my attention to the creature’s face.

Two large, pale blue eyes stared down a gray crocodilian snout and directly into my eyes. The snout – shorter than a real crocodile’s, but still long enough to make me cringe – was filled with short, sharp teeth, and if I didn’t know better I’d say the Zargansk was smiling.

It looked horrifying.

“I take it you have never seen one of my kind before,” it said in a calm, elderly voice. “Please do not be afraid. I do not wish to hurt you.”

Afraid? Was he kidding? I was about to collapse into a screaming mass of hysteria.

“My name is Oz, and I am a Zargansk scientist currently involved in Project Earth.”

I struggled to regain control over my body, which suddenly felt like it was anchored in concrete. It took a few seconds, but eventually I remembered how to work my arm muscles. I jaggedly raised my pistols at the monstrous alien named Oz and tried to think of something manly to say.

Nothing came to mind.

The Zargansk gestured at my guns as his smile widened. “Ah, you have come across several of our weapons! Quite impressive, no? Vastly superior to the powder-based weapons humans still use, if I may be so bold.”

I spared a momentary glance at Eddie, who looked equally terrified.

“What do you want with us?” I squeaked out.

“Ah, straight to business, then? Very well, Teal. I will tell you why I asked Rogi to bring you here.”

So it was a trap?

No. Please, no.

“I am interested in finding the location of your father, Teal: the human known to my people as Cronus.”

I blinked.

“My father? You want him?”

Oz gestured toward a desk across the room, seemingly asking my permission to walk toward it.

I nodded.

The alien walked slowly toward the desk. He sifted through a stack of scattered papers on its surface, then removed one and held it out for me to see.

I stumbled closer, my aim shaking like a paint mixer.

One step closer. Another step.

I leaned in and looked at the item in the alien’s hand. It was a picture of my family, a picture we had taken just a month or two earlier.

“This is your family, Teal?”

I tried to stay calm, but my eyes must have betrayed the thoughts screaming through my head. What did this mean? How did they get that picture? Was someone – a human, someone close to us – working against us, working with the Zargansk?

Oz seemed to sense my concern, because he suddenly withdrew the picture and extended his hands in a gesture of calming.

“Oh no, please do not worry. I mean your family no danger. Rogi and I are not interested in harming them.”

Thinking had become so muddy. I tried to clear my thoughts, tried to force my mind back into calmness, but fear clawed at me like a blender.

“This picture came from the files of a Zargansk scientist – the one named Kepik Arist. You mentioned his name earlier, so I assume you have heard of him?”

I involuntarily nodded. The Zargansk suddenly looked concerned – odd how human his expressions were – but he continued speaking as though two of his own weapons weren’t pointing at him.

“Kepik is quite a scientist, one of the best our race has ever seen. He has overseen observation of Project Earth for the last six hundred years. Thanks to him, we have learned more about your planet in the last six hundred years than we did in the previous six thousand. Kepik has a great love for earth and its inhabitants.”

Okay. This sounded familiar. My father had also mentioned this, and Lee had described this Dr. Kepik Arist guy as one of the few Zargansk that ‘believed in human rights.’ As I understood it, my father’s escape had caused Kepik to be imprisoned by his own people, and if dad didn’t return to serving the aliens, this Kepik guy would be killed and the Zargansk would declare war on us.

Something like that, anyway.

Stringing together that many thoughts dragged me back into reality. I cleared my throat.

“I’ve been told that this Kepik guy is currently in prison.”

Oz smiled – a forced, concerned smile.

“Worse than just prison, I am afraid. In less than 80 of your earth-hours, Kepik will likely be executed.”

So Lee wasn’t lying about that.

“Kyralee mentioned this,” I said, motioning toward her. She smiled when our eyes met, and a little more of my bravado returned. “Why will he be executed? What crime has he committed?”

“We Zargansk have very strict laws regarding interaction with humans, laws that were enacted to protect both of our races. Because your father is the first human to ever escape from Zargansk surveillance, some of my people have suggested that Kepik aided him in his escape, a most serious crime under Zargansk law. Personally, I find such an idea ridiculous, but there are many who do not share my optimism.”

Oz shook his head.

“If Kepik is found guilty of such charges, the council will convict him of treason… and the punishment is immediate execution.”

I understood now why Lee had been so insistent that we find this Kepik guy quickly. If we didn’t find him in the next three days, we wouldn’t ever find him.

This led to an even worse realization – that my dad’s life was dependent on us finding a super-important Zargansk scientist currently imprisoned and facing potential execution. Even if we made it through the portalgate, how could we possibly reach this guy? What place on earth – or Orionis – was more guarded then a prison?

Dad had asked the impossible.

My resolve began to drain.

“Teal…”

It was Kyralee’s voice, quiet but firm.

“It will be okay, Teal. Oz can help us.”

I raised my eyes until they met hers. Kyralee smiled, and it struck me just how beautiful she was. Painfully beautiful – big brown eyes, long black hair, soft white skin. In any other moment, I would have melted upon seeing her smile like that.

But it all seemed so irrelevant in the face of what I’d just heard. I couldn’t win. Dad was condemned to die – destined to be killed by a Zargansk poison.

This should have angered me, but it didn’t. I felt empty. Alone.

Afraid.

“Oh my,” whispered Oz’s raspy voice.

I glanced at him. His eyes looked moist. Was he… crying?

“Are you okay?” I asked.

He shook his head and made an odd sound, like a whimper.

“The more time I spend with humans, the more I understand why Kepik sees so much in you. You may be weaker and more impetuous than us Zargansk, but there is such a child-like innocence about you… something too many Zargansk have lost.”

This should have calmed me down, but instead it sparked my temper.

“What’s that supposed to mean? Weak and impetuous? At least we don’t go around poisoning innocent Zargansk and forcing them into servitude.”

The room went deadly silent. Oz wiped something from his eye.

“I am sorry, Teal. Very, very sorry.”

Another spark.

“I don’t want your pity, dammit! I just want a way to save my dad! Save your tears for someone who cares.”

Eddie gasped.

Let him gasp, because I was just getting started.

“You can apologize all you want, Zargansk – but that won’t cure my dad. It won’t erase the last four days. It won’t change the danger my family has been through. It won’t change the fact that your HIRCs tried to kill Eddie and almost succeeded.”

“The HIRCs are not mine,” Oz replied, his eyes no longer moist. “They are Zyken’s, and I do not approve of what he is doing with them.”

“You say that, but look at you – there’s a HIRC here right now! You must approve enough to use a HIRC of your own!”

I glanced over at Rogi, but he was as emotionless as ever. Maybe he was a Vulcan. Eddie would know.

“Rogi is not like the other HIRCs. He risked his life to save Kyralee.”

This elicited a sniffle from Kyralee. She began to shake.

In the sudden silence that followed, I realized my aim had become surprisingly steady – a stark contrast to my temper, which was spiraling out of control. I was losing control, and I no longer cared.

“Good for him, but that doesn’t mean jack for my dad. He’s still stuck in a hospital bed, counting the hours until your poison – or some HIRC – kills him.”

“Teal…”

This voice came from behind. Must be Eddie’s.

“No, Eddie. You were right. We should have ended this in the hallway. I don’t know why we’re here. Only we can save my dad, and we can’t do it by sitting here and listening to excuses from them.”

Eddie started to speak, but he was silenced by a sudden growl from Oz.

“Enough of this, Teal. I am not–”

“NO!” I yelled, taking a solid step toward him and leveling my aim on both pistols. “Don’t you dare tell me enough. YOUR people dragged me into this mess. THEY started this fight.”

My trigger fingers tightened.

“And I’m gonna end it.”

A sudden laugh broke my concentration. I glanced sideways to find Rogi laughing. Loudly.

“What’s so funny, HIRC? You find this amusing?”

He shook his head as the laughing subsided.

“No, not at all.”

“Then why are you laughing?”

His eyes met mine.

“It’s the irony.”

“What?”

“Without even knowing it, you’re validating everything Zyken has claimed. Your behavior is a point-for-point reenactment of what he has told the council.”

My temper stalled.

“What’s that mean? Who is Zyken?”

Rogi motioned toward Oz.

“I’m sure Oz intends to tell you, but that will be hard if you kill him. He can help more than you think.”

Grr. I hated the sudden seed of doubt this planted in me. I was totally prepared to blast the Zargansk.

But this complicated things.

Kyralee spoke next, her voice soft.

“Please, Teal. Oz can help us save your father.”

My aim swayed. My temper eased.

“We will save your father,” she whispered.

I sighed and lowered my guns. Oz let out a heavy breath of his own before falling into the chair behind his desk.

“I am much too old for this…” he mumbled, rubbing his eyes.

Eddie patted me on the back as Rogi nodded in approval – but I barely registered either of these. As soon as Oz had fallen into his seat, Kyralee had risen from her chair and strode toward me.

With tears in her eyes, she threw both arms around me and squeezed.

“I am so sorry,” she whispered into my ear.

I was too stunned to respond, too stunned to even wrap my arms around her in return. I just stood there, stiff as a board, until she let go and – with a confused look – stepped away.

My mind scrambled for a response. Was it too late to hug her back? Should I thank her? A handshake, maybe? Should I express my own sorrow for what had happened to both of us?

But it was already too late. Kyralee’s eyes searched mine a final time, then she turned away, her cheeks red and her eyes cast downward in confusion and embarrassment. She walked over to Rogi and stood beside him, her arms folded and her expression cold.

I sighed. Heavily.

This was just not my week.



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