Chapter 24

“Okay,” I said, clearing my throat nervously and avoiding eye contact with Kyralee. “Let’s talk.”

Oz eased forward in his chair, his long gray fingers grasping the desk for support.

“Teal, I understand your apprehension – but may I ask that you no longer point those weapons at me?”

I realized I still had both pistols aimed in his general direction. I lowered them immediately.

He exhaled deeply as his grip on the desk relaxed.

“Thank you. Now we may talk.”

I took a moment to collect my thoughts. I’d waited so long to ask so many questions. Where to begin?

“Let’s start with you, Oz.”

I glanced over at Eddie, who nodded in approval.

“Tell me about you and Rogi. Why are you offering to help us?”

“I have several reasons. First and foremost is my desire to protect Kepik Arist.”

Kepik. Always Kepik.

“Why do you want to protect him?”

“Kepik is the greatest scientist the Zargansk people have ever known. He has saved our people in more ways than we are probably capable of understanding.”

“That’s pretty high praise.”

“Not high enough. Kepik is our savior. He has taught us so much and protected us from so much… including ourselves.”

“Okay, so this guy is certainly worth protecting. How does helping us relate to helping Kepik?”

“Your father – as I mentioned – is the reason Kepik is currently in prison. His escape was the breaking point for Kepik’s enemies. It gave them the excuse they needed to finally bring him to trial.”

“Wait – Kepik Arist, the Zargansk ‘savior,’ has enemies?”

To my side, Rogi laughed.

“Of course he has enemies, Teal. Every great man has enemies – individuals and groups that fear him.”

I couldn’t disagree with that.

“So does this mean that Kepik’s enemies have been after him for awhile?”

“A long while, and your father’s escape was just the kind of event they sought.”

“I get that – the bad guys think Kepik helped my dad escape, which under your laws makes him a traitor.”

“In a nutshell, yes.”

“That still doesn’t answer my original question.”

“Your father is the only one that knows the truth – that he escaped on his own, without help. If he dies, that knowledge dies with him, and Kepik’s enemies will have a perfect case.”

“But even if he lives, it’s not like he can do anything to free Kepik. I doubt my dad would be willing to testify before a Zargansk court.”

That was a creepy thought. Hundreds of aliens watching my dad testify in Kepik’s behalf…

…not a very likely scenario.

“Perhaps not, but Zargansk law forbids execution until all known living witnesses have presented a testimony.”

“So… ahhh. Now I get it.”

Oz nodded in recognition of my epiphany.

“Your father is technically a witness to Kepik’s crime or lack thereof, even though he is not a Zargansk. It is a loophole that has caused Kepik’s enemies no small amount of grief.”

“Which is why they want to kill my father.”

“Precisely. As long as he is alive and his testimony remains unheard, Kepik cannot be executed. The law will not allow it.”

“So if we get my dad an antidote…”

“…he continues to live, and Kepik lives with him.”

“But how do they know if my father is alive or dead?”

“All human ambassadors are equipped with a variety of sensors, one of which will alert us when they die.”

Wait – human ambassadors had sensors? This explained why the HIRCs found my dad at the hospital. His conversation with mom must have tipped off the sensors hidden inside him, which explained why mom was so paranoid about setting off the sensors again.

Sweet, glorious answers! I couldn’t wait for more.

“What do you think?” I asked, turning to Eddie. “That all make sense to you?”

He nodded vigorously.

“You were right to follow Rogi here. I’m glad we didn’t blast him.”

We both looked at Rogi, who nodded in thanks.

“Okay, Oz. Thanks for that information. I’m glad you’re also interested in keeping my father safe.”

Oz momentarily averted his eyes, then quickly smiled and changed the subject.

“Yes yes, but we have much more to talk about. May I ask you a question?”


He opened his mouth to speak, but the room’s dull crimson lighting suddenly flashed to bright red.

Everyone froze.

The lights dimmed, then flashed again. And again. And again.

Like warning lights.

A series of yells echoed from the doorway, sending Oz leaping to his feet.

“Rogi, block the door! Now!”

Faster than I’d ever seen someone move, Rogi grabbed the silver table behind him and smashed it against the room’s only door.

“Teal, Eddie, help me!” he yelled. “Grab whatever you can and place it in front of this door!”

Eddie and I traded startled glances.


I rushed to grab a nearby chair when a sudden pounding echoed throughout the room.

“These are the HIRCs,” came a muffled yell from behind the silver door. “Open this door immediately!”

Rogi braced his back against the table blocking the door.

“Hurry!” he yelled at us. “It will take more than this table to keep them out!”

Eddie and I started throwing chairs, boxes, whatever we could find in front of the door. Kyralee joined in.

The pounding continued.

“Oz! We know you’re in there! You have ten seconds to open this door!”

I glanced at Oz, who rolled his eyes.

“HIRCs. Always giving ultimatums, just like their master.”

He ran to his computer and began gesturing wildly.

“Hold that door while I prepare an escape!”

Moments later we had the majority of the room’s contents successfully shoved against the door, allowing Eddie, Kyralee, and I to join Rogi in bracing our backs against the impressive pile of crap blocking the room’s only entrance.

“You have been warned!” the outside voice yelled. “We are unlocking your door and placing you under arrest!”

“Get ready,” Rogi grunted, leveraging his weight.

I braced myself.

The door smashed inward, but our makeshift barricade and sturdy backs kept the HIRCs out.

Oz suddenly began yelling at his computer in an odd, angry language like nothing I’d ever heard.

“What language is that?” I asked no one in particular.

The door bumped again, forcing all of us to brace ourselves more tightly.

“Zargansk,” Rogi answered.

“What’s he saying?”

“I don’t know; I do not speak Zargansk.”

The door bumped again, catching Eddie off-guard and sending him to his knees.

“Why are you helping us?” I asked Rogi. “Aren’t you a HIRC like them?”

“I help because that’s what Oz ordered. You might say I owe him.”

“Good enough for me,” Eddie said, shifting his weight and repositioning his legs for better leverage. “Say – what are HIRCs, anyway?”

The door bumped again, this time the hardest yet.

Rogi turned his attention to maximizing his advantage against the blockade, leaving Kyralee to answer Eddie’s question.

“HIRC stands for Human Involvement, Reporting, and Containment. They are an outgrowth of Zyken’s work on human hybridization.”

Eddie and I traded nervous glances.

“What do you mean by human hybridization?” I asked, not sure that I wanted to hear her reply.

She began to answer when suddenly Doctor Oz leapt into the air.

“It is finished!” he yelled. “Pray this works!”

I had no idea what he was about to try, but I hoped it was something good – because as far as I could tell, there was only one way in and out of this room, and it wasn’t exactly accessible at the moment.

I watched as Oz took a small vial from a rack on the wall and swirled it several times. The vial’s contents looked gray and shimmery, like…


I turned to Kyralee – who frowned and looked away, then to Rogi, who mouthed the word “nanons.”

Nanons indeed, just like the ones that had saved Eddie.

After a final swirl, Oz poured the vial into a clear, circular ball next to his computer. The liquid swirled and swelled as it filled the crystal globe, glittery and mesmerizing like a mass of microscopic fireflies.

The door bumped again, sending the four of us slipping across the floor.

“Oz! Hurry it up,” I yelled.

He ignored me as he continued emptying the vial of nanons into the strange clear ball atop his desk. Once the vial was empty, Oz stepped back and flicked his hand in front of his computer screen.

The crystal globe suddenly emitted a bright violet glow. The glow lasted for several seconds before slowly fading away, revealing the nanons inside as no longer swarming but instead a silent pile at the bottom of the ball.

Oz waited until the light disappeared before picking up the ball. He examined it momentarily, then turned to the empty wall behind him.

The door bumped again, dislodging an entire section of our barricade.

“Oz!” we all yelled in unison.

The aging Zargansk scientist lifted the nanon-filled orb to his chest.

“Please work,” I thought I heard him mutter as he tossed the contents of the sphere into the air.

He stepped quickly back as the nanons swarmed over the smooth silver surface of the wall. The miniature robots spread out and formed a rough rectangular cloud, then – with only a soft hum – they began furiously working on something.

Dust filled the room. The rectangular section of wall beneath the nanons appeared to be sinking forward, and suddenly I realized what the crazy old alien had done.

“Brilliant,” I whispered.

“What?” Eddie asked. “What’s going on?”

“The nanons are making us an exit,” Kyralee replied, and then the door behind us burst open.

The four of us went flying to the ground as someone outside the room began firing green blasts of energy into the now-open doorway.

Eddie wasted no time in grabbing his rifle and returning fire, while Rogi, Kyralee and I smashed back the pile of objects surrounding the doorway. The HIRCs outside smashed back, and it wasn’t until Eddie blasted a handful of them into powder that the door slid shut.

“Good work,” Rogi grunted as we rebraced ourselves against the barricade.

And then suddenly, from behind us:


I swiveled around and found Oz clutching his right thigh and swaying dangerously. Bright purple blood poured from his leg.

“Oz!” Kyralee and I yelled in unison.

We both ran over to help as the door bumped again. Kyralee and I traded momentary glances – only one of us could leave, and my bigger mass made me more useful at the door.

I ran back as the door again shoved inward. The increased force of the pushing meant that more HIRCs had arrived.

We needed to escape ASAP.

“Kyralee, please go,” Oz muttered, gesturing weakly at the hole the nanons had eaten through the back wall of the room. “This tunnel, if you follow it, will lead you out of the tunnels. You must not be captured by the HIRCs.”

“Quiet!” she commanded as she ripped a sleeve off Oz’s labcoat.

The door behind us smashed inward again.

“We can get you out of here!”

I watched her tie the strip of cloth tightly around Oz’s leg. It slowed the flow of the blood, but did not stop it. He needed medical help and he needed it fast.

“Don’t you have healing nanons?!” I yelled. “You know – those emnon things?”

Oz smiled and shook his head.

“Not here, Teal. Not unless we can program some quickly.”

Another violent shove from behind, this one so bad it elicited a curse from Rogi.

The pile of crap surrounding the door was giving way. Any second, the HIRCs would breach the doorway.

Oz started to talk, then choked and stumbled to his knees. He was losing way too much blood.

The door shoved open, and a funnel of green bursts poured through the opening before we could get it closed again.

Time had run out.

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