Muffled footsteps approached the chamber. I turned as Gabby and Tony entered the feather-encased room ahead of Callan.
Mathias moved over to stand alongside Zilya where they both faced us. Callan chose a position on the side where he could observe everyone. And look foreboding.
Gabby had the same red vine wrapped around her wrist as Tony and I did, but her forearms were now a deeper pink. Had the heat or humidity caused that, was it still a reaction to the fight with the killer-flower bush, or was her skin just extra sensitive? She stepped over to my right.
Tony stopped short behind me. “Your shirt’s torn and you’re bleeding. They stuck those spears in your back, didn’t they?”
“It’s okay, Tony.”
He stepped up beside me on my left, his dark eyes conveying rage at Callan. “She risks her life for your bunch of munchkin soldiers, or whatever those brats are out there, and you let them stab her?”
Callan might as well have been formed of granite, right down to his glare. Turning me into a sieve clearly didn’t bother him at all.
Ignoring Tony’s outburst, Zilya moved her head in tiny fractions as she considered the three of us, particularly Gabby.
That’s when Tony noticed Zilya.
I leaned over and whispered, “Shut your mouth, Jersey, unless you want to catch some demon fly in this place.”
His mouth snapped shut and he speared me with a glare that felt more natural than his concern about my injured body.
Mathias addressed Callan. “Is it true we have a new portal site to watch?”
“Yes, in the area where we killed the croggle two months back.”
By the subtle move of Mathias’s head, I had the feeling this was unwelcome news for some reason. Mathias spoke to Callan. “I understand these teks were trying to capture one of our new arrivals.”
“Now wait a minute!” I snapped. “I saved that little girl from that croggle monster.”
Callan sliced a meaningful look at Mathias. “The child was unharmed when I arrived, but I still don’t know where they came from and she destroyed every piece of the croggle by torching it before we could harvest any of the parts.”
The loathing Mathias swung at me this time turned his eyes a brutal shade of purple, almost black. “That meat would have fed us for several weeks. The bones and skin offered additional shelter for those who cannot create their own.”
I turned to Callan. “I had no idea that you intended to eat that thing.” It sure hadn’t looked appetizing. But Callan was doing his stone-faced warrior impression. No help there so I turned back to Mathias. “I only attacked the monster because I thought it was going to hurt the children fighting it.”
A silent conversation seemed to flow across Mathias and Callan’s hard gazes. Mathias finally nodded and said, “We haven’t explored every inch of this realm. I will allow that there could be...other captives.”
Captives like us...or did he mean they were captives?
Unconvinced, Callan crossed his arms, the muscles in his biceps clenching and unclenching. “They did not arrive in the area we normally monitor when the stripes appear in the sky or we’d have seen them when they ejected.” He paused, his long fingers curled into fists, then he cast a suspicious look at my ankle. “What is that ring on your leg called?”
I shrugged, trying to come up with a bland description that didn’t scream criminal.
Unfortunately, Tony decided to help me out. “It’s an electronic monitoring device.” At the blank looks, he added, “You know. Remote surveillance via an electronic device attached to a person or vehicle.” He winked at me. “That way their whereabouts can be monitored using GPS which reports their position via a cell phone network back to a control center.”
“To control a prisoner?” Zilya offered.
Thanks, Tony. Why not tell them I was suspected of theft and destruction while you’re at it?
Tony swallowed and avoided looking at me. “No, it’s a tracking device.” He let out a dark chuckle. “But this place is kryptonite for technology.”
“You think this is funny?” Zilya demanded, a frown creasing her face.
Tony raised his bound hands. “It was a joke, sister. Just a joke.”
Her frown deepened. If I had dug a pit for myself, Tony threatened to turn it into a bottomless hole. But before I could kick him into silence Zilya spoke to Mathias. “They do not dress as us so they could be high-ranking tek-nah-tee. They may wear strange uniforms thinking to confuse or trick us.”
Now we were being judged by what we wore? “What do our clothes have to do with anything? We’re not tek-nah-tees, whatever they are. We’re here by accident.” I hoped to distance myself, Tony and Gabby from whatever had killed children and the brother of somebody in this room. I felt certain the person those two boys had referenced as losing a brother was part of this discussion. Mathias or Callan?
I also wanted to alert Tony and Gabby that being a tek-nah-tee was not a positive point, and even worse that Zilya inferred we might be high-ranking.
Callan’s penetrating gaze cut across the room to me with the precision of a honed knife and held the warmth of an ice storm. “Does SEOH think us so stupid as to believe this ruse? To send a bunch of vid players in here to pretend to be what you’re not? To what purpose?”
I lifted my hands, palms out, and shook my head. “I would love to know what someone in this place was talking about. I don’t know what CO is. What does C and O stand for?”
Zilya’s glower suggested she addressed a moron. “Is this the part in your script where I spell S-E-O-H and explain who that monster is? So sincere sounding. Save your effort for when you stand in front of a recorder again, vid player.”
“I’m not a player or a vid whatever.” Wait, had she said a vid? I did know what a vid was–the short version of video–and that players performed in them. At last, a reference point for things that were coming back to me in bits and pieces.
“A great loss to young tek-nah-tee males, no doubt,” Zilya sneered, then paused and said louder, “Our houses do not allow vids or fictitious tales shared. We are immune to your training.”
Gabby piped up, saying, “Sounds like a boring-ass house to grow up in, if you ask me.”
Zilya scrutinized Gabby. After studying her closely, Zilya paused then her eyes flared with disbelief. “What house are you from?”
Why did she say house as if it was more than a dwelling?
Gabby gave a wry laugh, letting everyone know she found Zilya’s question absurd. “This month? I’m stuck in a dorm room. No house, thanks to dear old dad.”
Based upon Zilya’s blistering scowl, that had been the wrong answer. “They think everything is funny, Mathias. Shall we see how much they laugh when they face death?”
His drawn-out sigh spoke of lost patience.
I doubted his could equal mine, but I was making no headway with the current conversation. Time for a different approach. “This is the truth. We don’t know where we are or how we got here. If you can tell us how to get back, we’ll be on our way.”
Zilya started to speak, but fell silent when Mathias raised his hand. “We will not release you to report back to SEOH.”
Gabby muttered low, but not low enough. “What exactly are you accusing us of?”
Zilya’s attention returned to Gabby in a way that sent spikes of worry running along my spine, especially when Zilya demanded, “Look at me.”
Gabby straightened her spine and leaned forward, only her eyes defying Zilya. “Get your fill.”
“Your eyes do not match.”
Irritation rushed out with Gabby’s next breath. “Yeah, well. Some of us must rise above the mundane.”
Reacting as if she’d been slapped, Zilya’s fingers tightened on the folds of her tunic then opened slowly with a forced effort. She ordered Gabby, “Show me your ears.”
Gabby raised an eyebrow at Tony then me. He said nothing and I pushed up one shoulder, letting her know that while I thought it sounded ridiculous it was not an unreasonable demand. I hoped she wouldn’t antagonize Zilya further.
I checked Callan for a barometer of the room. He’d unfolded his arms and now had one hand clutching his chin in a thoughtful pose. Darker blond than his hair, his eyebrows were tucked low over his unusual, yet always intense, gaze. The unguarded moment vanished when he shifted his attention and caught me staring at him. His arms folded back over his chest and his chin cocked up with arrogance.
Lifting her constrained hands, Gabby brushed back lavender-and-yellow strands of hair that had fallen loose around her face. When she did, she exposed first her left ear that had six earrings spiked through the outer curve, each one a similar thin silver ring except for the last yin-yang shape hanging from a tiny wire at the lobe of that ear. When Gabby turned her head to show the other side, only the matching half of the yin-yang earring dangled from her right ear.
I tucked away the fact that I recognized the yin-yang design, intending to ask Gabby about it later. Whatever she could tell me about the design might trigger more memories.
I’d have found nothing notable about her earrings if not for Zilya’s sharp intake of air and Mathias’s double blink in surprise.
Even Callan registered a moment of shock before hiding his reaction.
What could be so significant about jewelry?
I studied Zilya closer this time, noting the delicate earring shaped as a swan inside a sliver of moon that dangled at the base of her right ear. She wore only one more earring inserted above that one. A small cut stone that blazed gold.
Mathias seemed to want all the information before making a decision, which gave me hope. As the leader, he might weigh what we said and not be quick to order our deaths. When he spoke, he addressed all three of us. “Where are you from?”
Tony said, “A school in Albuquerque, New Mexico.”
Mathias shook his head. “I know nothing of Albuquerque or New Mexico.”
Great, talk about hitting a wall in the conversation. Actually, beyond knowing the Sandia Mountains, I’d never heard of Albuquerque or New Mexico either before today, but I wasn’t admitting that. Recalling how Etoi had treated me like an idiot when I’d suggested this was her home, I asked Mathias, “How’d you come here?”
Zilya answered instead. “Stop the ridiculous questions. Do you really think to convince us you are not tek-nah-tee?”
Zilya’s face brightened, Mathias looked disgusted and Callan’s countenance took a deadly shift.
I explained, “If I knew what a tek-nah-tee was I could convince you we’re not that, but I have no idea what those are or where we are or how we got here. That puts us at a huge disadvantage in trying to prove our innocence.”
Tony interjected, “Look at us and look at you. We obviously come from somewhere different. Show us a picture of a tek-nah-tee that looks like us. What else about us reminds you of them?”
Every time Zilya’s attention landed on Tony her expression turned more evil. “I would say you smell like them, but you wear a scent clearly meant to confuse us.”
“You mean the cologne I’m wearing? That’s Davidoff’s Hot Water.” Tony grinned. “It doesn’t confuse women where I come from, babe. It attracts them.”
“I admit that it does mask your stench.”
Mathias had been studying Tony and angled his head, peering closer at him. “You have a mark on your neck. Explain it.”
Tony gave him a frown that questioned his IQ. “My tattoo? The Blood Scorpions...from Jersey.”
Mathias did that visual exchange with Callan again then ordered Tony, “Uncover the entire marking.”
“No problem, dude.” Tony reached for his collar and pulled the material aside, turning his head to show off the image I’d noted earlier. A twisted, deadly looking thing with a claw. I now recognized the art behind Tony’s ear as a scorpion, with another claw in the fold of his neck and a swirled tail sneaking down Tony’s back.
Tony grinned at Zilya with a wink. “Like it?”
“There is no family banner as yet,” Mathias pointed out.
Tony rolled his eyes, insult sparking in his words. “What? The Blood Scorpions control the west side of Camden. That’s all anyone needs to know about touching me or my family.”
Where Mathias and Zilya had turned wary of Gabby, they were not the least cautious of Tony. In fact, Zilya’s fingers quivered with a surge of anger. “Your arrogance knows no boundaries.”
Gabby muttered, “She’s got your number, Jersey boy.”
Tony held his bound arms in front of him, hands up. “It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.”
“Then you admit you are one of the mighty teks?” Zilya quizzed Tony.
I opened my mouth to object and Callan warned me, “Do not interfere or this discussion ends now.”
Meaning things could deteriorate further. Not good.
Callan had kept any show of his emotions locked down tight, everywhere but his eyes. Fury stoked his gaze to the fiery shade of brown. I could swear the colors on his skin shifted a tiny bit. So his markings did move. What caused that? Mathias and Zilya hated tek-nah-tees, but Callan wanted blood.
I clenched my jaw, forcing myself to remain silent when I smelled a trap being set for the Jersey Jerk.
Tony swelled with the implication that they thought he was special. He gifted Zilya with a beaming smile. “Nobody handles technology better than me back home. I am the man.”
Smiles could say a lot of things.
Zilya’s said she’d just heard the answer she wanted.
Mathias turned solemn, but pain and anger riddled his gaze. When he spoke to Tony, his words came out with quiet authority. “Enjoy your superiority for the short time you can. You shall be the first to pay for the transgressions of your people.”
“What’re you talkin’ about?” Tony, brows furrowed, turned to me. “What’s goin’ on?”
I couldn’t see a benefit in remaining silent at this point. “They think you’re a tek-nah-tee, Tony. Something or someone they believe to be their enemy.”
Tony’s cockiness disappeared in a flash. “Whoa, everybody. That’s not me.” He swung a worried face to Mathias then Zilya. “I’m a geek guy. A babe magnet. A lover, not a fighter.”
Zilya’s posture stiffened. Anger spiked her breathing. “First you want us to believe you are a genius of technology. Now you want me to believe you are not tek-nah-tee?”
I had a feeling the less this girl talked to Tony, the better off the three of us would be. And if this conversation didn’t improve soon we’d face a bloody resolution. Forcing a calm in my voice I hoped would hide the worry squeezing my chest, I asked Mathias, “What’s it going to take to convince you we’re not whatever this tek person is? A strong ruler would be sure before jumping to conclusions.”
His eyebrows tightened in a brief flinch at my subtle strike to his leadership skills, but he lifted his hand and all conversation paused. “Fine. You want a fair judgment, even though your kind is not acquainted with such practice? How did you travel here?”
Tony jumped in, trying to be Mr. Helpful. “I can tell you that.”
I bumped Tony’s leg with my foot, but he was undeterred. “Rayen here did some woo-woo with the computer and–”
Callan broke in. “Computer?”
Mathias opened his mouth but said nothing.
“Yeah, a computer. Never seen one?” Tony asked, his ego expanding by the second.
Mathias cut in. “Does this computer have a name?”
Tony made a half-laughing noise deep in his throat. “They all have names. Mac, Apple, IBM, Dell and a pile of others.”
Once again, Mathias shared another of those looks with Callan that hinted of communicating, but I read this one to mean the mention of a computer had been significant. But if I tried to keep Tony quiet now Callan would think I had something to hide and I sensed he was the one we should worry about most.
Addressing Tony once more, Zilya said, “You were explaining how you traveled here.”
“Right. Where was I?” Tony’s eyes lit up again and he nodded in my direction. “So she sticks her hand into the computer screen and the next thing we know, bam, we’re sittin’ in some pod that spits us out where that nuclear crocodile climbed out of the ground.”
“Pod?” Mathias frowned.
“That thing that spins then vanishes.”
“Ah, I see. You did travel to the sphere in a transender.” Mathias’s voice flattened, removing any hope of sympathy for Tony or me. “Take them to the Isolation Unit, Callan.”
Callan waved his hand at us and ordered, “Follow me.”
“You don’t believe him?” I asked Mathias, waving a hand at Tony.
He cocked his head as though he thought my question strange. “Of course, I believe him. I’m sure he’s tek-nah-tee.”
What had Tony said that ended all speculation on their part? I demanded, “But why?”
Mathias spoke in the most matter of fact way. “Because tek-nah-tees are the only ones who can travel here voluntarily through the transenders. They are the only ones who can visit the sphere.”
Tony sputtered a protest as he and Gabby were being herded toward the opening to the corridor.
Callan turned to me, no mercy in that face.
My hands were damp with a deep panic that our stay in this place had taken a disastrous turn. I made one last attempt to find out our future from Mathias. “What’s the Isolation Unit?”
“Where we hold prisoners.”
That might give us a chance to figure a way to escape. “How long will you keep us there?”
“For a short time.”
Thinking on that for a moment before answering, Mathias said, “I have not decided about you and the other girl.”
Zilya finished the thought for him. “But that one–” She pointed at Tony. “–will be the first tek-nah-tee punished for the deaths of our children. He will pay with his life.”
Tony’s face washed clean of color.
Gabby’s mouth dropped open.
I felt the same way, but unlike Tony or Gabby, I knew I could stop these people. I wouldn’t let them kill Tony.
Mathias glared at Zilya, but didn’t counter her claim.
Callan stepped toward me in a threatening move.
I searched inside myself, calling upon the energy I’d experienced earlier, the power that could break these vines around my wrists and give me a fighting chance at getting all of us out of here alive.
Not even a flicker.