When I opened my eyes again, I was propped up against something that sloped back.
I saw soft golden-brown hair that fell across Callan’s head and touched his shoulders.
He knelt beside me, bent over, muttering more of those strange, vicious words he said as if they belonged only to him. I enjoyed a moment of studying the strong muscles in his neck and the way his shoulders flexed when he moved. He muttered some more. “...stupid to keep a furkken tek alive...they don’t have powers...how could Rayen kill the...no other explanation...”
I smiled over hearing my name again and moved my hand to grasp his arm with a weak grip.
He stilled, lifting his head slowly until molten brown eyes met mine. “About time you’re awake.”
Sort of awake. My head floated in a fog, but I did feel alive. The pulse in his wrist raced beneath my fingers. I had the strangest impulse to put my hand over his heart and feel each beat.
But I didn’t want to bring back his stony face.
I tried to speak and managed only a growl from my dry throat.
Slowly, he tugged his arm away from my hold.
He reached for a furry round shape the size of a large coconut cut in half, but I didn’t think coconuts came in shades of dark pink or had furry hides. Come to think of it, was I even sure I knew what a coconut was. Too much to still grapple with. After he gave me a drink that had a tart and sweet taste, he put the nut down and touched a finger to my stomach.
I flinched at the sharp ache, but the killer pain from before had worn itself down to a constant throb. Somewhere between close to dying and now, I must have passed out. How could I still be alive?
“What’d you do to me?” I asked.
“I closed your wounds.”
“Really?” I stretched my neck forward to see my abdomen below my half shirt, all that was left after ripping off a cloth for Gabby. The gash from the croggle’s claw was now a red welt that ran in a wide line from my left side across my stomach. My arms had several similar welts.
Something tickled my memory about healing, but I couldn’t put a finger on it. “What’d you use to close the gashes?”
Studying on his answer, he finally said, “My hands. How would you repair a wound?”
“I don’t know. No wonder you thought I’d be able to walk back to the village.”
“You can’t yet. Not until your internal organs heal.”
“Can you fix those, too?”
Confusion fed through his voice. “I can help...but I don’t have Jaxxson’s skills. Plus I’ve drained my power getting your wound closed. You have to complete your healing.”
“I don’t know how to heal anything.” Or could I? “Can you show me?” Since you have magic hands.
Things had been going along so well, but that question rallied his suspicions. “Tek-nah-tees can’t heal with hands either.”
“Then wouldn’t this be a good test if you’d show me what I need to do and let me try?” Unless I failed and gave him the proof he needed that I was a tek-nah-tee. But would he kill me after keeping me alive? Only one way to find out.
Still he hesitated to make a move.
“Afraid I’m telling the truth, Callan?”
“Fear a tek?”
Now I’d insulted him. “I meant, are you willing to take the risk that I might not be one? Me? I’d take that challenge, but you might not–”
He leaned forward, some decision made, and ordered, “Spread your hands over your wound.”
I moved my arms that were still heavy with weakness. Once I got my hands settled over the scar on my stomach, he spread his fingers and covered my hands with his.
A tingle of energy vibrated where he touched me, but I felt nothing changing inside my abdomen. “What else?”
“You have to see the injuries in your mind and focus on repairing the organs.”
This would not be the time to admit I didn’t see anything in my mind. “I’ve got a headache like you can’t imagine. Think it’s interfering with my vision.” His expression became even more suspicious, if anything. I had to make this work. “I’m asking for a little help to get me started, that’s all.”
His sigh came out weighted with irritation then he said, “Lift your hands.”
When I did, he slid his beneath mine and spread his fingers over my skin.
The minute I placed my hands over his, I felt warm energy flooding my body. The weight of his touch didn’t hurt as I expected after having suffered earlier when he’d touched my wound. His touch felt right, comforting.
For the first time since coming awake in the desert, I didn’t feel so alone.
Closing my eyes, I opened my mind as if I’d done this before and this time I did see something. A healing river of heat traveled from my hands down through his and inside me. I saw the shredded damage inside my belly...but how?
Was I seeing it through his eyes?
I pushed the swirling energy like a tidal wave from ravaged organs to torn veins and arteries, amazed at the way my body responded as it began to heal.
Renewed strength poured through me. Ready to be whole again, I shoved the energy hard throughout my belly and side so quickly it ricocheted back to my hands.
He grunted in surprise, having been the conduit between my hands and body.
I opened my eyes and closed my fingers around his. He had large hands, calloused fingers. I felt a pulse beating through his hands, pumping harder the longer he stayed still.
His face was so close to mine, I could see each long brown eyelash around his intense eyes. Was he breathing faster?
From the effect of healing me...or being so close?
I was breathing pretty fast myself.
As for my organs, my heart beat just fine, pumping with the speed of a cougar running across an open field. I was afraid to move and break whatever spell had wound around us.
My gaze moved to his lips, so firm and masculine.
That pushed everything out of my mind except one strumming thought. I wish he’d kiss me.
He leaned toward me as if drawn by my thought.
My heartbeat raced out of control. Our faces were inches apart. I could smell his warm skin, a musky scent heated from battling the croggle.
Movement drew my eyes to his chest where the strange colors on his skin shifted, a lot, morphing in hue and shape. I whispered,“Why does your skin change?”
He jerked back, withdrew his hands and stood. The shapes on his skin became fixed again. “Are you healed?”
What happened? Did his strange skin embarrass him?
I didn’t think so. No, I sensed anger, but why?
“Are you healed or not?” he repeated, snapping out the words as if I was taking a long time to decide if I wanted to live or not.
I surveyed my stomach. Where I’d had a long welt before there was now a smaller scar line. Looking up at him, I said, “Looks like it. Thank you for saving my life.”
It took him a few minutes to decide on a reply. “You’re welcome.”
Accepting my appreciation hadn’t been easy for him, especially from someone he believed to be his enemy.
But joining hands with him to heal myself must have cracked his conviction. “So we’re clear now that I’m not a tek-nah-tee, right?”
“I haven’t decided. How’d you make the croggle burn?”
So much for no tek-nah-tee can heal himself. I had no better answer about the croggle now than the one I’d given him earlier. “I wish I knew.”
“Let me know when you’re ready to risk the truth.” Disgusted, he turned, searching the distance. “Time to go.”
I uncurled my fingers, regretting the loss of touching him. Even without my memory, I knew on a deep level that I had never met a boy like him, and yet the word boy just didn’t fit in the same sentence with Callan. Besides being ripped with muscle, he had an air of maturity that came from carrying responsibility for many lives.
Warrior, through and through.
I still wanted him to kiss me.
A sure sign that I’d taken too many hits to my head today. Twisting, I pushed up to my feet.
And caught his gaze whip to my chest. My half shirt had ridden up dangerously high but still protected my modesty, though barely. I gave a little tug on the torn edge and heat ignited in his eyes, simmering beneath a barrier of strong will.
Snapping up the spear that had been stabbed in the ground, he turned to walk. “Keep up.”
I tried out a few steps and suffered no sharp pains so I hurried to catch up, striding beside him as much as I could along the narrow path. The area around us confused me.
“This looks different than where we passed through earlier on our way here.”
“It is,” he said, not slowing or looking at me.
I took in our surroundings that seemed more open, less thick brush and lush vegetation than before. I couldn’t help but point out, “Seems like it’d be easier to have your village in this terrain. Less lethal than near the jungle.”
He made a scoffing sound that ended with him saying, “Think we’re stupid as dugurats?”
What had Tony said that sounded like? A moron? “I have a great deal of respect for all of you who have survived living here. I’m sincerely interested in knowing how all this works.”
Still no answer. “Can’t you, for one minute, accept that I really don’t know what’s going on? If I did, would I be fighting croggles and staying captive if I was with those scouts?”
Ten more steps then Callan said, “SEOH built the framework of the village where it is. We’ve been too busy surviving to spend time and resources on creating a new habitat, though we may have to as more and more children are sent here. Besides. . .” He swept a look from side to side. “This area has its own threats, different than the jungle and the denser forest, but just as lethal.”
I had so many questions to ask, it was hard to figure out where to begin. But I didn’t want to lose the chance to learn more with him willing to share.
“Tell me what qualifies as a tek-nah-tee?” When he made a grumbling sound at that, I added, “Please. If you’ll answer my questions, I’ll answer yours.”
Either my offer, or my tone, must have gotten through to him. Tension loosened in his shoulders.
“Tek-nah-tee seek to control, and destroy, the world through technology.”
“That leaves me out then.” I pushed a mottled green leaf the size of my head out of the way of my face and admitted, “I don’t care one way or the other about technology. How else are you different from them?”
Fine lines formed in his face when he frowned. “Tek-nah-tee have no gifts and don’t believe in ours.”
“Gifts? Such as?”
“Healing with hands or divination...via scrying, to name a couple of simple ones. I’ll not share all our abilities.”
I didn’t blame him. Never give an enemy that kind of information and I was still marked as enemy. Gabby had just such an ability, or a gift.
But I wouldn’t expose her.
Callan called that a simple ability...and healing with hands? Hadn’t we just done that? But what about the internal power I’d used to kill the vine and the croggles?
Would he consider that a gift?
“You asked me to explain healing so how did you kill that croggle?” Callan asked again, as though he’d lifted my thoughts.
“I was just thinking about that. Can you hear my thoughts?”
“No. We have no bond.”
I didn’t know what he meant, but let it go to answer his question. “You felt energy when you helped me heal, right?”
He nodded, albeit reluctantly.
I explained the only way I could. “I start feeling this thing inside me, an energy, something stronger than just being a human. That’s as good as I can describe it. Anyhow, that energy starts building and releases when I need it...like when I had to kill the flower vine and the croggles.”
He didn’t need to know that I’d tried and failed to call up the energy a couple of times today. That’d make me, and Gabby and Tony, too vulnerable. Better to let him think I had a weapon I could use against him and Mathias should my group need one. Though I’d given my word I wouldn’t use it against Callan, neither could I let them kill my friends. If it came to that, I’d have to figure out something.
Muscles in his jaw pulsed as he thought deeply. “How long have you had this power?”
“I don’t know.” Seeing his quick temper flare, I held up my hands. “Before you get angry, give me a minute to explain.”
He sent a curt glance my way that warned he was losing patience. “I’m listening.”
“I woke up this morning in the middle of a desert with no memory of who I am or where I came from.”
That surprised him. “What desert? And how can you not know?”
“I might have hit my head. I don’t know, but when I came to, a beast was chasing me and I ended up getting caught by people I didn’t know, then taken to a school I’d never seen.”
“You recognized nothing?”
Hearing interest in his question, I rushed on. “No, well, that’s not true. I did recognize the land and the mountains, but had never heard of the place where the school was located called Albuquerque.”
“I don’t know Albuquerque.”
“What about the Sandia Mountains?”
“Then you probably won’t know The Byzantine Institute of Excellence that we came from.”
“No. Is this the school where your friend Tony said the computer sent you here?”
I was encouraged to see him considering everything we’d told him even if he had slurred the word friend to remind me of my association with his perceived enemy. “Yes, but it didn’t really send us here so much as we got sucked into it and landed in what you call a transender.”
“Are you sure someone was not playing a prank on you? Could this computer be an advanced Cyberprocessor?”
Colors flashed behind my eyes and alarms went off in my head. I’d heard that term. “I don’t think we were tricked since there were only three of us in an enclosed room when it happened. And the computer we got sucked into was one that had been discarded. All of them in the room looked as if they were useless or old.”
Stopping in mid-stride, he reached for my arm. “There were more computers?”
“Sure. Remember Tony said all those names like Mac, Dell, whatever?”
His mouth tightened at the mention of Tony’s name.
I made a mental note not to bring up Tony again until after I convinced Callan that none of us were tek-nah-tees. I pushed the conversation back to what had spurred his interest.
“There were a bunch of computers in one room plus I saw some newer-looking ones in several classrooms.” I didn’t pay attention to his hand, hoping he’d leave his fingers where they held my arm. I liked the warm feeling of his skin touching mine and picked up a low vibration, as if the energy lying dormant inside me recognized him.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Is this a tek-nah-tee school? Or a museum?”
“I have no idea. Don’t even know how to spell tek-nah-tee.”
He rattled it off without thinking, his eyes staring into the distance. “You would know if this school was TecKnati owned. They mark all their possessions with the ANASKO triangle emblem.”
“What’s that look like?”
“Three circles and an A.” He released me and started walking again, lost in thought. “This makes no sense, but if you truly came here on your own...”
With Callan sounding open minded about what I’d told him, I decided to jump on this opportunity to make him an offer. “If you’ll let the three of us–me, Tony and Gabby–leave, we’ll take you and the others back with us. We’ll show you the school and the computers. We’ll get you out of here. Then we’ll figure out how to get you back to your world.”
He turned to me, hope and excitement flickering in his eyes for a moment, until they dimmed and he shook his head. “You arrived in a different transender than I did. We have to travel back through the same one we came here in. The scouts made it clear that to return any other way would result in death.”
“Why would you believe them? How can using a different one matter?”
He smiled as if I’d asked a foolish question. “As MystiKs, we may not have entire cities devoted to science and space exploration, but neither are we ignorant of the laws of transitional travel. If we don’t return to our world through the same path, our molecules would rearrange. We might either die slowly or explode upon arriving.”
Transitional travel sounded strange, but not wholly unfamiliar. I’d leave all the technical and scientific discussion for Tony. Right now, I wanted to keep Callan talking and find mutual ground for us to work out an agreement. I had to offer him something worth our freedom. “If we can get back the way we came, then I give you my word I’ll find a way to help you escape this place.”
“You make it sound possible.”
I heard hope in his voice along with disappointment. I understood. I longed to find out who I was and where I belonged, but a sick worry crawled around inside me, warning that I would never get those answers if I didn’t return to the Institute.
He asked, “How can you help us go home without SEOH’s permission?”
“I don’t know what this SEOH is.”
“He’s the leader of the TecKnati. Each City has its own SEOH, but one is superior to all others. He created the Sphere. He sent us here. He’s the one responsible for the deaths of our children.”
“He is human. And he will die.” The brutal chill in Callan’s words told me he would fight for the honor of killing this SEOH himself. He seemed to shake the emotion off and asked, “Something doesn’t make sense. Explain about this school in Albuquerque. Tell me more about where you come from, something that might allow V’ru to fill in what you do not know.”
“He’s an elite member of the records house, revered for his abilities. He has access to all of known history. If there is information on your world and this school, he may have it. But he will need the date the school was opened or something more than just a name.”
Why hadn’t Callan taken this V’ru to check the transender area? Maybe V’ru wasn’t cut out for fighting croggles.
Callan wanted information on the school. I dug up what I remembered from my conversation with Hannah on the way to Suarez’s class. That and the green book I’d read in a matter of seconds. “I only know what I’ve learned since waking up today, but Albuquerque is in New Mexico and that’s part of America.”
His face went still as stone. “America?”
“I might have that wrong. Someone mentioned New Mexico was a state...that’s it. One of a united states.”
“United States,” he whispered. “I have heard of a United States...in my world...”
I wanted to shout. This had potential. “Really? Where do you live?”
He snapped out of whatever had distracted him. “I live in ATL/5, one of the ten cities.”
I read somewhere in Hannah’s book that there were fifty united states. Wouldn’t that mean there were at least that many cities? “What ten cities? Aren’t there more?”
“No.” He shook his head, his tone solemn. “Life outside the renaissance cities is too dangerous.” His words drifted off with his straying gaze that focused on nothing. He murmured to himself, “How can...ancient...I don’t understand.”
“What? Ask me, Callan. I want to work together. I’ll tell you anything I can.”
“Give me more information.”
“About the school. How old it is, anything. As I said, the more information I have to give V’ru the better he will be able to answer my questions.”
If this V’ru was all that good, he should be able to confirm whatever I told Callan. “I read a book that said the Institute has been there for four years, so that would mean they opened it...” I paused, calculating the current year based on the date Suarez had written on his board in class. “They opened it in 2009.”
Callan stopped dead in his path then stepped away as if too close to a poisonous snake. “The year 2009?”
“Yes.” Had I said something wrong? “I saw 2013 written by an instructor as part of today’s date on his board, so I’m pretty sure 2009 is correct.” Had I screwed up simple math? “I’m telling you the truth but you can ask Gabby if you don’t believe me.” I tried to reassure him. “Regardless of the date, believe me when I say I will help you leave here.”
“You can’t.” Horror spread across his face.
“Why not? What’s wrong?”
“Because, if what you say is true...that’s not my world.”
“I don’t understand. You said you know of America.”
Disbelief rocked his expression. “I do, but I don’t exist there.”
How could that be? “Now I don’t understand.”
“I live in the year 2179. The United States did exist in 2009, long before the K’ryan Syndrome. Even if I could travel in your transender, I wouldn’t survive in a world where I haven’t yet been born.”
I thought I couldn’t be shocked any more today. My heart pounded faster as what he said settled into my mind. He came from the future? If so, that meant...
The significance of his words hit me like a fist to the middle, raising an even greater concern. If his words were true, Gabby, Tony and I were from the past...and would die if we tried to return to our world in the wrong transender pod and arrived in the wrong year.
Even if I convinced Callan that we weren’t TecKnati, how could we be sure which pod we traveled here in?
How were we going to get back to our world?