Staring at wonder boy V’ru, I wanted to ask Callan if he was the one playing games now. Was he serious about taking advice from some boy whose head didn’t reach my shoulder and who wasn’t even in his teens yet?
V’ru was gangly stick arms and legs, huge brown eyes and a toothy smile that fell away the minute he stared up at me. He wore a cloth wound around him that brought the word “toga” to mind, but he was so skinny the loose clothing looked as though someone had wrapped a toothpick with a napkin. His thick black hair fell mop-like into his face as one small hand kept shoving it out of his eyes.
This was the all-knowing wise one?
“V’ru, this person is known as Rayen,” Callan said, by way of finishing introductions.
“How old is he?” I muttered, seeing my fate in the hands of a kid who would topple over if I blew on him. Not just my fate, but Tony’s, too, if Mathias showed up with the Jersey Jerk captured.
“He is eleven years of age and prefers to be spoken to directly rather than treated as though he does not hear you,” V’ru said, as though admonishing a small child.
I lifted my hands and struggled to keep a straight face. “No insult meant.”
V’ru merely dipped his head slightly, accepting the apology, which caused his hair to slip into his eyes again, then stepped forward to ask Callan, “How may I assist you?”
“We found Rayen and two other unknowns at a new transender location today. We have determined the other female in the trio to be Hy’bridt.”
That garnered a slight slant of V’ru’s eyebrows in surprise before Callan continued. “We suspect the male with them to be TecKnati.” Callan glanced at me as if to say, see, I can be fair, too.
Even though I now better understood his rabid hatred of his enemies, I still couldn’t allow anyone to take the life of someone who had not personally caused harm, or judge him based on what others had done. I was betting my life that Tony was not TecKnati. Sure, the Jersey Jerk could be a pain, but that didn’t warrant a death sentence.
I considered it a move in the right direction that Callan had used the word “suspect,” but that may only have been to prevent me from protesting further.
V’ru held himself very straight, his fragile hands now clasped behind his back. He spoke as if he stood before elders six times his age. “And what do you know of this one?”
This one? I lifted a hand. “Stop right there. I’m not this one. If you don’t want me to refer to you as if you aren’t here then call me by my name. Rayen.”
V’ru’s eyes rounded even more at the order. “I see what you have had to suffer, Callan.”
What did that mean?
Callan gave V’ru a friendly look unlike anything I’d seen cross his face since meeting me. He clearly had a fondness for this kid. “It’s not so bad, V’ru, but I need your answers to help Mathias make a decision on what to do with the three of them.”
How could anyone make life and death decisions based on a conversation with an eleven-year-old boy?
V’ru made a quarter turn with his body as if he were on a spindle and asked me, “State your family history.”
Spearing Callan with an impatient glance, I summarized what I knew quickly. “I don’t know my family history. I woke up this morning in the middle of the desert near the Sandia Mountains with a beast chasing me and with no idea who I am or where I’m from. Some people picked me up in a transport unit with wheels and took me to a school.”
I nodded, noting that I wasn’t the only one who thought that odd.
“Intriguing. How do you know your name is Rayen if you do not know who you are?”
This kid would ask that. “I...uhm, let’s just say I do have some innate knowledge, like the fact that I’m seventeen.” No point in mentioning the ghost or that I’m allergic to peanuts.
Time stretched from one long second to the next as V’ru appeared to study on something before asking another question. “Why did you come here?”
“To this Sphere?”
“Yes.” The word might have been short, but V’ru loaded it with serious of-course attitude.
“I didn’t have a choice. I was in an equipment room at the school with Tony and Gabby, looking for a computer when I turned one on and got sucked into it.”
“Computer?” V’ru looked from me to Callan. “That is...not possible.”
Callan interjected, “I thought the same thing, but I believe she is telling the truth.” He paused, then added, “About the computer.”
Meaning I might be lying about everything else? I let that go and spoke to V’ru again. “Anyhow, Tony and Gabby grabbed my arm to keep me from disappearing, but they got pulled in, too. Next thing we know we’re in the thing you call a transender, then spit out here where we end up fighting for our lives and saving little kids.”
I sent that last comment in Callan’s direction to remind him that two children were alive right now because of what I had done as well as the efforts of Gabby and Tony.
His eyes wouldn’t meet mine, but I could tell I’d hit the mark by the way his fingers curled into fists and uncurled.
V’ru cocked his head at me. “What year were you born?”
“I don’t know, but I’m guessing if I’m seventeen that I was born about 1996.”
That answer turned V’ru into a statue, staring at me as if I weren’t human. When the kid did speak it was with a hushed awe. “No one has ever perfected forward travel through time. Not even the TecKnati.”
Callan nodded, “Exactly, so how can this be?”
“Either she lies–”
I snapped, “It’s not a lie.”
“–or the TecKnati have developed technology I cannot access.” V’ru sounded as though that was beyond improbable. He looked right at me when he said, “Give me your blood.”
I waved him off with my hand. “I know what you said, but I’ve given up enough blood today.”
“Why do you fear me?” V’ru appeared completely baffled.
Fear a skinny eleven-year-old? Insulting. “I’m not afraid of you.”
“Then hold out your hand.”
Callan explained, “V’ru needs a sample of your blood to process.”
I could accept that, though I didn’t like getting jabbed with another needle. The Institute had already taken blood samples and fingerprints. With V’ru stuck in this Sphere, I doubted the kid would get results back faster than the school.
Still, to show good faith, I extended my hand with the palm up. V’ru nodded at Callan who produced a short blade from where it had hung from a loop on the belt slung around his waist. I breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t cut my throat when I’d stood over him earlier. Now he just pricked my finger then backed away as I offered the bubble of blood to V’ru.
What exactly would this kid do with the blood?
Reaching out with two narrow fingers, V’ru carefully lifted a smudge of blood between his thumb and forefinger. He swirled the drop for a minute between his fingers then took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
I watched Callan for his reaction, but he seemed content to wait on whatever V’ru was doing.
When V’ru opened his eyes again, he reached into a pocket on his toga outfit and produced a small cloth to wipe his fingers clean. With his arms shoulder-width apart, he lifted his hands, palms facing out.
A bright, translucent image in the shape of a rectangle came to life, similar to the computer screens that I’d seen in Mr. Suarez’s classroom. But this one had no structure holding the image floating in the air.
I pointed. “That’s–”
Callan answered, “–a holographic monitor. Shhh. We have to be quiet while V’ru uses his gift to analyze.”
V’ru moved his hands back and forth in front of the monitor, tapping in places and pausing images that streamed past faster than I could process. When the kid slowed down, the screen image coalesced into one of a stark, light-filled landscape and a cliff-dwelling abode that brought up the word “home” in my mind. More memories surfacing?
Could this kid actually tell me who I was? My heart started beating faster. I sucked in a sharp breath, excited. Home!
V’ru pushed the screen to his left as if it slid on a track and I felt as though something vital to me disappeared.
I spoke first, aware of half-formed thoughts pushing at me. “I’ve seen a projection like that before. That’s driven by a Cyberprocessor, isn’t it?”
“Some are,” V’ru allowed, considering me with a curious expression. “MystiKs do not utilize Cyberprocessors, but you are not MystiK.”
I’d survived deadly beasts, a trip through a computer and spear tips to face this judgment-by-child without trial? I don’t think so. “I’m getting tired of saying this, but I am not TecKnati.”
“I believe you.”
Callan said, “What?” as I said, “Really?”
Addressing Callan first, V’ru explained, “I must have more time for a complete analysis, but this one–Rayen–has no residue of the K-enzyme, the metallic ink in her system. This ink is what all TecKnatis use to mark their human population.”
I gave Callan a victorious smirk. “See?”
“However,” V’ru continued. “As I said, I need more time to study on this. Your physiology is not of the ancient times that you claim.”
Callan returned the smirk, but added a dose of suspicion. “So you did lie about coming from the year 2013.”
“No, I didn’t, but if your boy recorder here is so smart what year am I from?”
Callan and I turned to V’ru who said, “If you know what a Cyberprocessor is then you cannot be from the year 2013 as it was not created until the year 2129, month July, the day 17, time–”
I cut in, “Okay, I get your point and I don’t know how I know about Cyberprocessors, only that I do. Just like I know I traveled here from 2013.”
No judgment showed in V’ru’s expression, in fact nothing crossed that blank little face. He said, “What else can you tell me about when you woke up in the desert?”
“Nothing except that I did recognize the mountains I saw in the desert, but then they took me to the city called Albuquerque.”
With a touch of his finger, V’ru slid the floating monitor back in front of his face again, tapping several times before the image returned to the scene with the strange house. “As one of the ten MystiK cities, Albuquerque did exist–”
Callan’s eyes rounded. “Really? I’ve never heard of that.”
V’ru paused with a look of strained patience on his face. “That is because you are not a historian. Albuquerque is the city you know as ABQ/City Seven.”
“As I was saying, Albuquerque existed in a territory once known as the state of New Mexico during the year 2013, established in 1706 by–”
“That’s all we need on Albuquerque, V’ru,” Callan said with heavy politeness to smooth over his interruption.
Good thing to know I wasn’t the only one anxiously waiting for some concrete information.
“I don’t know about it being MystiK or not,” I said, wondering if that would work in our favor or against us. “But since Gabby and Tony are familiar with that area, yet aren’t familiar with MystiKs, I’m not sure we’re talking about the same place.”
V’ru opened his thin lips to speak, but Etoi raced into the room, announcing, “We caught the TecKnati.”
I turned to face her. “Tony?”
Etoi ignored me, only speaking to Callan. “The one who released the scout. Mathias sends for you.”
“I’ll speak to Mathias about the recaptured prisoner, but we are almost at the time for celebrating his BIRG Day. Go oversee the final preparations.”
“I should help with guarding the TecKnati.” Etoi was clearly annoyed at Callan sending her to do a mundane job of preparing a celebration, even one for Mathias. Or maybe especially because it was for him.
V’ru seemed perplexed. “Should we not postpone the BIRG Day so there is no rush, Callan?”
“No. It’s important to hold true to our customs, even here. Mathias and I both believe we must not become lax with rituals that are significant to our Houses.”
“Do you believe what the scouts told us about leaving here at eighteen?” V’ru asked with the first emotion I’d heard in his voice. The boy yearned for home as did all the other children. On top of that, he clearly feared being left.
This new information confused me. “So you get to leave at eighteen?”
Callan only said, “That’s what the TecKnati scouts told us when we were dropped here.”
I’d think that good news, if not for the way his gaze had shifted away when he’d explained that. I didn’t know that he lied, exactly, but he hid something.
But why would the TecKnati release one of their MystiK captives? Surely they realized Mathias would go straight to his people and bring the wrath of the MystiKs down on the TecKnatis.
Anyone would declare war to regain their stolen children.
If I’d thought it was hard to understand the world I’d fallen into earlier in the day, that was nothing compared to this world in this Sphere.
Callan’s smile expanded, but with a forced effort. “Of course, I believe we’ll leave here at eighteen. My guess is that the TecKnati will use each leader they return as a pawn in negotiating with our Houses. This is clearly about the HERMES space launches that our leaders interrupted. The sooner our Houses know where we are, the quicker they will find a way to return us home.”
“That will be soon?” V’ru asked, sounding more like a boy of his age and less like a stuffy know-it-all.
“Yes.” Callan nodded with conviction. “Once our Houses and the TecKnati come to an agreement this will all be over. I want you to continue analyzing the information on Rayen while I speak with Mathias.” Callan turned to Etoi. “Go now and check on the preparations.”
I watched those two march out with their orders, fairly sure that I was the only one who realized Callan had not told V’ru and Etoi the whole truth. I didn’t know how I knew, but I did.
I had to reevaluate Callan and didn’t like what I suspected.
Anyone who’d mislead these kids and raised their hopes only to have those hopes crushed when Mathias didn’t leave was capable of ordering the death of a stranger just because he had a scorpion tattoo and an attitude.
Callan couldn’t see beyond his grief over his brother to pass up a chance for vengeance.
When Callan bent his head, ordering me to follow, then stepped out of the chamber, I rushed to catch up.
If he was willing to kill Tony, he’d better be prepared to kill me as well.
And that meant I had to be prepared to do whatever it took to stop him.