I hoped Gabby and Tony would understand about my staying, but Callan and his band of youngsters needed someone with my strange superpower to fight monsters. Someone more than Etoi, Zilya and matchstick V’ru.
The upside of staying would be spending time with V’ru who might shed some light on where I’d come from if my blood wasn’t as old as Tony and Gabby’s. Maybe, if I survived all this, I’d get a chance to search out my family, wherever they might be.
When I returned to the village and entered the common area, I was a step behind Callan who’d shed any grief during the walk, at least grief that someone could see in his face. I knew his insides were shredded from watching what had happened to Mathias.
A commotion was erupting.
Callan stopped short in front of me and called out in a voice that belonged to a leader, “What’s happening?”
As usual, Etoi jumped in first. “V’ru has completed his analysis of the TecKnati’s blood.”
Just the way she put that raised the hairs on my neck. I saw Gabby standing next to Tony, who was still wrapped in vines, but now had his mouth uncovered and a scowl on his face.
I stepped forward, speaking directly to V’ru, “What’d you find out?”
Lifting his narrow chin, V’ru pointed a finger at Tony. “That one has a genetic marker of the TecKnati–”
“An enemy!” Etoi shouted. “The lack of K-enzyme ink means nothing!”
Tony spoke up, “We got bigger problems, Rayen. Need to move this along so you and I can talk.”
I lifted a hand to let Tony know I understood and to wait a second then I turned to Callan. “Can you shut up Etoi for a moment so we can get to the bottom of this?”
Callan shoved a dark look at Etoi that would have shut up a croggle. “Not another word unless I ask you a direct question.”
For once, Etoi clammed up and nodded respectfully.
I asked V’ru, “What does this genetic marker mean?”
“That he is of the TecKnati lineage.”
“I still don’t understand. Tony’s not from your world.”
“I did not make that claim.”
At the eternal end of my rope, I asked bluntly, “Callan needs to know if Tony is or is not a TecKnati from your world.”
V’ru turned to Callan. “No, this one’s blood is older, from the year 2013, born in 1995, the month of–”
“Got it.” I stopped V’ru from rambling on then added, “Thank you,” before reminding Callan, “You agreed to free Tony.”
“I did.” He called out, “Jaxxson, release him.”
With Gabby and Jaxxson’s help, Tony was shaking off vines and stretching stiff limbs before hurrying over to me. He said, “I know how to call up the transender, but we’ve got maybe ten minutes to get back to where we first arrived.”
Gabby strode right behind him, a determined look in her eye. “I’m not going.”
“You want to stay?” I asked, taken aback by her words.
“Yes. This is the first place I’ve ever felt...normal.”
Tony released a tired exhale. “What about your family, Gabby?”
“I doubt my dad’ll even notice I’m missing.”
“That can’t be true, Gabby.” Tony looked to me, but I wasn’t the one to convince her to go.
“If you’re sure,” I said to her. “I plan to stay, too.”
Tony raised his hands. “Whoa. Listen up, you two. We all have to go, because we need Rayen’s handprint to call up the transender and to make it function. And two may not be able to return without the third one. We’re all in this together. And if we don’t get into the right transender before that moon sets...there may not be any other way home.”
My chest hurt from the sudden pounding of my heart. I’d promised Callan I’d stay. Given my word. But I couldn’t condemn Tony to being trapped in this dangerous place.
Taking in Gabby’s mutinous face and Tony’s worried one, I ran my hands through my hair, needing a way out of this.
Jaxxson stepped forward and spoke to Gabby. “You can’t go with us to our world once we find a way out of here. I’d rather you go home, because I would not leave you here.”
From the softening of Gabby’s face, I figured she caught Jaxxson’s meaning, too. The healer was saying if he got the chance to return to his home, he wouldn’t leave if it meant Gabby would remain alone in the Sphere.
That was, if Jaxxson didn’t turn eighteen here first and leave a different way, as Mathias had.
What about Gabby? Would the same thing happen to her if she turned eighteen? Granted, she was only sixteen, but I couldn’t let her stay and not know what risk she faced, but neither could I share what had happened to Mathias. And Tony would definitely turn eighteen if we got trapped here for any length of time.
Which left me with having to leave the Sphere to get her and Tony out of here.
Something silent passed between Gabby and Jaxxson that brought a watery smile to her face. She turned to me. “I’ll return with you.”
Tony muttered, “Halle-freakin-lujah.”
That left the final decision to me, who Tony believed was the only one who could call up his ride home. But I’d promised Callan...
V’ru spoke up. “I have the results of Rayen’s analysis as well.”
All commotion ceased.
I asked, “What’d you find out?”
“First, tell me what beast chased you in the desert?”
“I don’t know, some strange thing that could change shape.”
Callan’s eyes widened at that then he sent a stern look to V’ru, one that questioned where the young boy was going with his question.
V’ru nodded, as if puzzle pieces slipped into place. “That confirms what I have determined. You are of C’raydonian descent–”
Every child in the common area gasped.
I had no idea who or what a C’raydonian was, but it sure didn’t sound good.
“That is all they have time for,” Callan snapped, grasping my hand, a serious edge to his words. “You must go. Now!”
“Wait. I need to hear more from V’ru and I said I’d stay. I don’t want to leave you and the children here alone.”
“I’ll tell you what you need to know on the way, but...you’ll never be able to live with yourself if you fail to take your friends home.”
I didn’t think that was the real reason Callan had decided I had to leave right this minute.
He squeezed my arm, letting me know he was sincere and not just trying to get rid of me. “Go home with them. That may be the only place to find a way to free us.”
There was something he wasn’t saying. But what? And what was a C’raydonian? I thought there were only MystiKs and TecKnatis.
Callan started barking orders at the children. “You three finish getting the young ones to their chambers. Etoi, pull together ten hunters who can travel to the transender location where we originally found these three. Get moving.”
I grabbed Callan by the arm. “I can’t do this.”
He stepped close to me. “Yes, you can, just as I can, and will, take care of this village...until you return.”
The faith he showed in me was humbling. I put my palm on his cheek. He was right. I had to take Tony and Gabby home, but could I really find a way back here? I had to. For him. For all of them. And what if V’ru could tell me more about myself? “I will return as soon as I can. Just as soon as I get those two back to the school.”
“I know. But we need to move out. The moon is close to setting.”
When I turned to leave, I noticed one person who wasn’t joining us. Zilya had watched the entire exchange through eyes flashing dangerous thoughts. I didn’t have time to waste wondering what was going on between her and Callan.
After giving me a wide berth as if I were a threat, Etoi whipped together a band of young hunters, all the while her expression saying she didn’t like doing it. Callan led the march through the fog wall, out to the jungle side of the village. Once the kids entered the dense foliage made darker by the setting moon, every fourth child lifted his or her hands in the air and light glowed from their palms. At that point, they raced forward, beating a path to the transender and making it impossible to talk.
I took the last position, watching over all of them and trying to convince myself I wasn’t doing the wrong thing and that Callan was right.
Tony and Gabby had ended up in this dangerous place because of me. I owed them and could pay them back by taking them home.
When our group reached the edge of the jungle next to the transender landing spot, I searched beyond the thick leaves for croggles. Callan stepped up to me, barely winded from the run. He said, “Hurry. Giant croggles only come after a transender lands, but the baby croggles are more active and appear unexpectedly sometimes. If you go quickly, you should be safe.”
“What did V’ru–” I started to ask when Gabby yelled, “No, Tony!”
I saw Gabby rushing toward Tony who had knelt next to a pink bloom identical to the attack flower and stuck his arm into the center of it.
Was the guy suicidal?
Running over to him, I got there first and grabbed Tony’s free arm.
“Let go, Rayen. I got this. It’s not a real flower.”
When a holographic panel like the one V’ru had used appeared next to Tony, he stood up, pulling his arm free, grinning his who’s-the-man-now grin he’d had when I first saw him enter Mr. Suarez’s classroom.
A female voice from the panel announced, “Four minutes left to request transender return from Sphere.”
Tony told me in a rush, “Put your palm here.” He pointed to the panel. “And hold it there until you get a red outline.”
I hadn’t gotten the information I wanted from Callan, but with minutes counting down, I did as Tony instructed. A red line traced my palm then started blinking, and finally the outline glowed green. The voice said, Request acknowledged.
“That’s it!” Tony shouted. “You did it, babe.”
A whirring sound began out in the open space.
I turned, searching for Callan who was right behind me. I grasped his shoulders. “What was V’ru saying about C’raydonians?”
Tony stuck his face next to Callan’s. “We gotta go. That thing takes off in three minutes whether we’re in it or not.”
“Move.” My one word shoved Tony out of the way. I pleaded with Callan, “I have to know.”
He lifted his hands, cupping my shoulders, disappointment rippling through his voice. “C’raydonians lived in our world at one time.”
“They were...after the K-virus...they...”
“They were rabid. Dangerous to the rest of the survivors.” He sounded guilty having to admit that. “C’raydonians were hunted to extinction by sentient beasts fifty years ago because everyone feared them breaking through the laser curtains protecting our cities. The last ones disappeared forty-five years before I was born.”
“What?” I felt lightheaded. “That means–”
“That you shouldn’t be alive.”
“Why...how could I end up in 2013?”
Tony yelled, “Come. On. Rayen!”
The whining noise screeched louder. Wind swept from the open space and into the jungle around us, rattling through the dense foliage, whipping the blood-red earth into a frenzied, dense funnel cloud.
Callan shouted down the wind. “The C’raydonians had time travel to the past. You may have been thrown into a portal in an attempt to spare your life and have been bouncing your way back in time. The beast that chased you is a sentient machine built to track and kill C’raydonians. It may have followed you into the same time travel portal.”
I shook with the news. My people were dead. My family. I should be dead.
We were hunted...as dangerous beasts.
Callan sucked in a quick breath and rushed on. “V’ru spoke to me in my mind before I left. He said many young people were lost in the C’raydonian Siege. He warned that the TecKnati would be thrilled to discover a living C’raydonian to imprison and run tests on...” His fingers tightened on my shoulders, demanding I heed his words. “Staying here puts you, and us, at risk. You must go.”
I didn’t believe he really thought I was a risk to him if I remained. Not the way he added “and us” almost as an after thought. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m telling you to stay in the past. Where you’re safe, Rayen. If the TecKnati find you here, they’ll take you to SEOH and he’ll kill you.” He whispered, “Don’t come back for any reason. I don’t want you to die.”
Tony grabbed my arm, pulling me around. “Now means now! The pod’s spinnin’ into view.”
Out in the field beyond the jungle, a whirling circular mass of gray metal emerged.
I let Tony pull me away to where Gabby stood looking as if she was going to bolt in some direction, but I wasn’t sure whether she’d head for the transender or back to the village.
When Tony released me and pulled Gabby’s arm, she followed him. I fell into step behind them, ducking my head so I wouldn’t be swallowed by the winds.
My insides were ripping apart.
I didn’t care if I was C’raydonian. I couldn’t be rabid. Just couldn’t.
At the edge of the field, I stopped and turned. Callan stood two steps behind me, as if determined to protect me to the last second.
I closed the distance between us and reached for him.
He yanked me into his arms, covering my mouth with his, letting me know in the most honest way he could that he didn’t want me to go. His lips embraced mine with fierce determination, just as he did everything else. His arms banded my back and hugged me close. All the turmoil and chaos disappeared.
Nothing existed except this moment.
A life I had more questions about than answers.
But nothing could make me question what I felt for Callan. I might not fully understand it, but I knew no one would ever mean as much to me.
Warmth burst inside me, but not like it had before. This time the heat that rushed through my body held the power of a tidal surge, threatening to consume everything in its path.
Just as his lips were consuming me with every touch.
Tony yelled, “Raaayen!”
I broke away, regretting the separation as if I’d lost an arm or leg. “I will return. Don’t even waste your breath arguing. I’m coming back. That’s a promise.”
I kissed him quickly once more and swung around, running across the field where Tony stood with his mouth gaped open and Gabby grinning. When I got to the transender, I looked at Tony. “What now, Jersey?”
“Oh, uh, put your hands up on the pod.”
I did, joining my hands with his and Gabby’s and two panels slid open. Tony scrambled in, pulling Gabby in right behind him.
Turning for a last look, I saw a sad smile on Callan’s face. He didn’t think he’d see me again. I just knew it. Leaving him was killing me, but I would come back. I waved and dove inside as the panels started sliding shut. Then something I needed to know slammed into my brain.
I shouted at Callan, “When are you eighteen?”
For a second I thought he hadn’t heard me.
He hesitated then called out, “Not soon.”
The last words I heard as the panels snapped closed.
My next breath came out harsh and shaky. I couldn’t breathe when I realized Callan had already started fulfilling the role Mathias had just vacated.
He’d just lied to me.