Gaia’s voice was the first to break the brief silence that followed Ruthers’ announcement. “Why Gabriel,” she began in a flat voice, “I am pleased to see that you take the disappearance of several students so seriously, but I am a bit surprised to see it taken quite this seriously. A couple of those students reappear and half of the Committee is suddenly involved? Are you very certain that none of you had anything more important to attend to?”
Meanwhile, I was busy glancing over every Committee member that was there, and noting that Elisabet wasn’t among them. Because, of course, she was a billion light years away, dealing with all that. I did wonder where these guys all thought she was. But there really didn’t seem to be any way to bring it up naturally, like, ‘Hey, where’s that Spanish woman? I really liked her. She’s so on top of things, it’s like there’s two of her.’ Yeah, real subtle.
Litonya, the Native-American woman with the face lined with some serious wrinkles spoke then. “It is about far more than a few disappearances, Sinclaire, as you are well aware. It is about the fact that the same people who abducted Miss Chambers and her peers were able to mount a country-wide assault, and even attack the school itself, as a distraction to allow that abduction.”
Geta, the black guy who had been some kind of Roman emperor, gave a firm nod. “Not only that,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “but they also somehow took two more students weeks later.” His head nodded toward Vanessa and Tristan. “And took them straight from the school grounds itself without security being able to detect it happening.”
Teach, old Blackbeard himself, added, “The point is, it’s a pretty big deal. Probably not quite big enough for all six of us, but, you know, we were curious.”
Reading between the lines there, I was pretty sure that Ruthers had been coming out here with just people that he could trust to be on his side of things, but Teach had come to make sure that things stayed fair. And I was incredibly grateful for that. After everything we had been through, the last thing that we needed was for things to go nuclear right now.
Ruthers spoke then. “Either way, we are here now. And there is a far more important subject then the question of why we chose to come.” He looked toward Tristan and me then, and I could have sworn that his bulldog expression actually softened just a little bit. “Miss Chambers,” he started, “Mr. Moon, are you all right? What is wrong with Miss Moon?”
”Uh,” Tristan started while glancing down at his sister in his arms, “she’s fine. She’s just exhausted. It’s been a long trip.”
It was Sophronia, Zeke’s mother, who jumped on that. “What exactly was this trip, as you say? Where have you all been, and how did you escape? Where are the others? Are they still alive? As you can see,” she finished with a slightly thoughtful look, “we have a great many questions.”
Before anyone else could say anything, I finally managed to get a word in. “We were taken by a bunch of bad guys who wanted to find a way to use Heretic students against Crossroads. That’s why they went through all that effort to make a distraction. They wanted to get us young because we’d be easier to handle. They’ve been training us, making us fight in this arena thing since they took us. They thought they could turn us into their soldiers.”
Yeah, I may have done a little thinking ahead of time about how to explain our disappearance. And this would help to cover the fact that we had new powers and skills that we shouldn’t have had it all we were doing was sitting in a cell or something. It wasn’t perfect, of course. But we didn’t need perfect. We just needed something believable enough.
Ruthers was watching me, his hard expression also curious. “And the others,” he began, “are they dead?”
He’s worried, Tabbris piped up with obvious surprise. He’s worried about the others. He’s afraid that they really are dead. He cares about them.
It wasn’t quite a complete surprise. After all, I had been telling the truth back when I told the man that I could sympathize with the position he had been in before. The man could be an asshole, and I blamed him for a lot of things. Kidnapping my older brother and sister was at the top of the unforgivable list. But I also didn’t think that he was a completely irredeemable bastard with absolutely no good points. I could believe that he thought he was doing the right thing, even if it made him come off as a piece of shit. And I definitely believed that he could be worried about the fate of several students, since he had run the school for many years before moving up to the Committee.
I shook my head at that. “No,” I answered, “they’re not dead. At least…” I swallowed hard, the lump in my throat suddenly quite real. This part I hadn’t even had time to tell Gaia, Dare, and Deveron.
Speaking of the latter, he had been standing somewhat behind me with his hand on the back of my shoulder. Every time Ruthers spoke, I felt his nails digging into the muscle of my back a little bit, as if he was very, very close to throwing himself at the man, damn the consequences. Which, of course, would have been a very bad idea.
Dare had noticed my expression. “What? What happened?”
Right, this was hard. I took a breath and let it out again before starting. “It’s Professor Katarin. H-he… he’s…” Again, I had to swallow. “He’s… gone. He’s dead.” My voice sounded hollow to my own ears. Saying the words that flatly, with that kind of finality, it brought back the same feelings that I’ve had right after it had happened. I felt sick, like I wanted to throw up again. There was a cold, empty pit in my stomach. And it only got worse when I saw the shock in Professor Dare’s eyes. Of all the things that she had been expecting me to say, that was probably pretty low on the list.
Gaia too seemed taken aback, her eyes widening just a little bit before she spoke a single word, ”How?”
“Yes,” Ruthers, who looked just as surprised, agreed. “How? Are you… quite sure?”
Biting my lip almost hard enough to make it bleed, I gave a slight nod at that. It was so hard to talk through the lump in my throat. But I forced myself to. “He was… betrayed. He didn’t see it coming. But he… he died a hero. He died protecting innocent people. There was a chance. He… he could have survived. But a bunch of other people would have died, so he stayed. And because he stayed, because he chose to stay, he couldn’t protect himself. So he died.” The words sounded empty, and I didn’t really recognize my own voice. But I said them anyway. They needed to know. Later, I would tell Gaia and the others the full story. But right now, even the Committee needed to know that Ulysses Katarin had died a hero.
“What monster was responsible for it?” The flat question came from Sophronia, as the auburn-haired woman met my gaze. I didn’t know how, but I had the feeling that the she suspected that the answer was more complicated than it just being a normal Stranger.
So, I answered. “It was Isaac.” My voice was as flat and hard as I could make it with those words. Maybe I couldn’t tell the whole truth about what had happened out there, not yet anyway. But I could at least make sure that everyone knew about what a complete piece of shit that son of a bitch was. I could make sure that they all knew he was an utter psychopath.
“What?” That was Geta, frowning heavily. “You mean Ulysses died saving Isaac Acosta?”
Resisting the urge to snarl my answer, I shook my head. “No, I mean Isaac killed him.” In response to the surprised looks, I explained, “He was a traitor. He’s the one that sold us out and helped those people abduct the rest of us. He killed Paul Calburn before all that happened, probably weeks earlier, and helped them replace him with that Fetch. He probably helped them abduct Professor Katarin back when he first disappeared too. Katarin tried to help us, and Isaac took advantage of that. He used one of their cannons. If Katarin had moved, it would have killed a lot more people. But he took the hit himself instead. That’s why he’s dead. Because he let himself get hit so that other people wouldn’t.” By the end, despite my attempt to sound as clinical and detached as possible, there were tears in my eyes and I could barely speak.
In the background, I could see Deveron and Professor Dare reacting. Both looked like they had been punched hard. Dare’s mouth opened and shut, the horrible agony barely hidden behind her eyes making me desperately wish that I could have told them in private. Even Gaia still looked hurt.
Litonya was the first to find her voice. “Is it possible that you misunderstood, and that the boy was actually replaced as well? If there was one Fetch, or another of those… creatures that is capable of taking over and controlling the body of–”
“No,” I quickly snapped despite myself. I didn’t want Isaac getting off from something like that. “Believe me, it was him. I don’t know how they turned him, or what they did. But he’s a traitor.”
“If they… these people who abducted you, managed to go as far as to turn a human against his own…” Ruthers looked like he wanted to believe that I was lying, but couldn’t quite bring himself to. “If they could do that, they must be a hell of a lot more advanced than most of the Strangers on this planet. This is a coordinated, planned effort.”
“Of course it was coordinated.” The words came from Calafia, who had already moved to stand over some of the dead soldiers. The woman, whose rescue of my father from the werewolves (to say nothing of her efforts in removing the Bystander Effect from him) I still didn’t fully understand, frowned while looking down at them. “These are very advanced armor and weapons,” the woman noted. “And very uniform. This is not a ragtag force. This looks like a proper military. So yes, we are dealing with a coordinated threat, a genuine assault on our world. And it is probably one that has been in the makings for quite some time.”
“You.” Geta was looking at Tristan. “How did you and your sister get wrapped up into things? You didn’t disappear with the others. You disappeared later, and from the school itself, no less.”
Tristan’s answer came without a second thought. “Nessa and me, we were trying to figure out what happened to our friends. So we ended up looking through all their rooms, just in case there was something to find. Anyway, eventually we got to Isaac’s. There was this kind of… roundish metal thing under his bed that opened and closed. You know, sorta like a clamshell? Anyway, it must’ve been some kind of teleporter, because we opened it and the next thing we knew, we were surrounded by a bunch of those soldier guys on some random moon. And they were not happy to see us, I can tell you that. They took us down to where Flick and the others were.”
Wow. Okay, apparently Tristan had been working out what to tell people too. That or he had come up with that off the top of his head. Either way, it was pretty impressive.
The Committee members all exchanged brief glances with one another, seeming to communicate silently before looking back to us. Ruthers was the one who spoke once more. “How, precisely, did you escape from these people? And where are the others?” His eyes drop down a little bit to the girl in Tristan’s arms. “And what exactly is wrong with Miss Moon?”
“N-nothing.” That was Vanessa herself. She shifted a little, opening her eyes. “I… I’m okay.”
“She was–” Tristan started, while carefully letting the girl down onto her own feet.
“Miss Moon?” Litonya interrupted, clearly wanting to see what Vanessa would say without prompting or help from her brother about what had already been said. “What happened?”
Fortunately, if the Committee thought they were going to catch us in a lie, they would have to try harder. Because Vanessa simply answered, “The three of us were supposed to fight in one of those arenas again. But we saw one of those clamshell teleporters on a table. I saw them use the thing before, and I remembered what they did. So… we went for it. We managed to lock the door and I used it. I… guess it took a lot out of me though. I—” She gave a long, loud yawn before shuddering. “It was hard.”
Either she had been awake for a lot longer than we thought she was, or maybe one of the others like Deveron had telepathically fed the answers to her. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, the answer fit everything that Tristan and I had said so far. But I couldn’t tell if Ruthers was happy or annoyed about that fact. His face was fairly unreadable.
Geta, however, openly scowled while indicating the dead bodies on the ground. “And how did these get here?” he demanded. “Are we to assume that you killed them when they followed you here?”
“No.” That was a Professor Dare. “We did.” She nodded to the rest of us. “When the tracking spell that Headmistress Sinclaire placed on Miss Chambers after her previous… experiences let us know that she was back, we came immediately and arrived just in time to stop these… soldiers from taking the children back.”
“Unfortunately,” Gaia herself added then, “there were a few who escaped. And they seem to have taken the teleportation devices with them.”
“And,” Teach noted, “as all of these men are dead, we won’t be getting any answers out of them.”
Calafia shook her head. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Even corpses can hold a wealth of information. My people can autopsy them, and find out more than you would think.”
“Fair enough,” Teach agreed. “And my people can take the armor and weapons and see what we can find out about how it was made. Maybe there’s a recall function, or a map in one of their pants.”
“Keep me updated on what you find out,” Geta instructed. “I’ll talk to Oliver, compare notes with him about all the worlds we know about.” To Vanessa, Tristan, and I, he added, “We’re going to need you to describe everything you can about this… moon that you were on. We’ll compare it to our records, and see if we can work out where you were.”
That was right. From what I remembered, Geta was the Committee member in charge of colonizing and exploring newly discovered worlds, while Oliver was the one who worked with colonies that were already established. The two of them worked together a lot.
“Unless,” Litonya put in then, “you believe that the others would have been killed already, after your escape.” The old woman’s gaze met mine intensely, like she was trying to see right through me. “I can’t imagine what kind of guilt that thought might make you feel.”
I met her hard gaze without blinking. “They’re alive,” I replied flatly. “Those guys went through a lot of effort to catch us. And they put even more effort into training us to fight for them. They’re not gonna just throw all that away, especially when they don’t think that we can tell you anything important. They’re arrogant pieces of shit. Believe me, they will never believe that we could find them again.”
“Well,” Ruthers announced, “we’ll just have to teach those creatures how wrong they are.” He looked to the three of us then. “But right now, you look exhausted.” Belatedly, the man added, “And your classmates would probably like to know that you are well. I know that Liam would like an update about his daughter. Unless…” His eyes narrowed a little. “… there’s anything else you’d like to tell us right now?”
I knew what he was doing. Ruthers had probably been all-but convinced that my mother had had something to do with us disappearing. He probably thought that I had recruited the others or something. But now that we were here with a bunch of heavily armored soldiers that looked like they had come from some sci fi movie, I wasn’t sure what he was thinking. Or how he was somehow justifying it to still be Mom’s fault. Maybe he thought she’d been spending all these years raising an actual military or something. It wouldn’t surprise me. Either way, he was very obviously trying to see what he could get out of me.
“Honestly, it’s a jumble right now,” I replied. “I still can’t believe we actually got away, and that you guys all got here so fast. I’ll probably think of something else to tell you in an hour, or a day, or a week. It’s all just… it’s a mess in my head right now.”
Calafia was already nodding to that. “Perfectly understandable. I will send my Runners to speak with you soon. Try to sort out your thoughts. Anything that you can tell us, anything at all, might lead to the other students. Particularly if it can be put together with anything that’s found during the autopsies or the inspection of their equipment.”
Tristan nodded quickly along with me, while Vanessa responded. “Don’t worry, we want to find our friends as much as you want to find the people who did this.”
“And with that,” Gaia cut in before any of the Committee members could say anything, “I believe it is time to take Miss Chambers and the Moons back to the school.”
“We will be in touch,” Ruthers assured us, while I heard Calafia in the background calling in a squad to pick up the bodies. “One way or another.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. Gaia gestured, creating a portal for us to move through. As I started to follow the others, however, Ruthers stepped over to take my arm. “Oh, Miss Chambers…”
For just a second, I thought Deveron was going to take a swing at him. I heard him grunt behind me, his entire body tensing before he stopped. Mostly because Professor Dare had put her hand on his opposite arm.
Looking at Ruthers’ hand, then his face, I schooled my expression to be as even as possible. “Yes, Counselor?”
Those eyes tried to bore straight into my soul. “If there is anything else that you think about, anything you want to tell me… I will listen.”
“Thank you, sir,” I carefully replied, restraining every smartass remark that popped into my head right then. “I will.” Then I added, “And my father, sir? I was told you guys would try to find him.”
His gaze narrowed just a little bit, though I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “I’m afraid we have no more information than we did before.”
“Oh.” Swallowing hard, while pretending to be upset (it wasn’t hard to pretend, since I had plenty of other things to be upset about), I nodded slightly. “If you do find anything…”
“We will tell you,” he promised.
Thanking him in a mumble, I pulled away and joined the others in moving through the portal to go back to Crossroads.
Except we weren’t at Crossroads. Instead, the portal had taken us to a clearing in some kind of forest somewhere. It looked pretty, with the setting sun just visible through the branches above, which made the multi-colored leaves glow beautifully.
“Where–” I started, looking back to the others, just in time to find myself hauled up into a tight hug by Wyatt. The man was stronger than he looked, strong enough to make me gasp.
“It’s alright,” Gaia announced with a tiny smile as Sariel stepped out of her. The two women exchanged brief glances, and I was absolutely certain that they’d had a long, private conversation while all that had been going on. I wasn’t sure how much the Seosten had been able to tell Gaia, but it was probably quite a bit.
Though not enough, apparently, as the headmistress looked to us, to me. “Now we have some privacy and time so that you may explain exactly what happened while you were away. I know that you are eager to see your friends, and we will make that happen as soon as possible. But we also need to know what we are dealing with, before there are any other interruptions.
“So please, start at the beginning, and tell us what happened out there.”