I contemplated Mortac's words long after we returned to our quarters. He had admitted at my insistence that he felt it safer to keep us separated in case Colvinra tried any tricks. When I declared that didn't matter, he moved us to adjoining quarters that shared a common space. The only entrance out of the living area remained locked, of course. We found four rooms off this suite, each with a single bed. Donovan and I spent the rest of that day together, discussing what had happened. Suyef, it turns out, was as quiet as Quentin had described him to be. Donovan hadn't managed to get more than a few words from him. I didn't tell my brother everything Quentin and I had discussed. I'm not sure why. Donovan was all the family I had left, but I felt if he knew Quentin and I had talked, he might get a bit defensive.
Soon after that, we all went to sleep. We saw no one the next day save for a guard delivering nutrient packs. He ignored any attempt to talk. So, we waited, the next day passing as the previous had. On the third day, the four of us sat in silence as we consumed the nutrient packs delivered moments before. After eating, I pulled my legs up underneath me and eyed my roommates.
"You're quiet," I said to Quentin.
"So are you. I thought you wanted to be. You didn’t seek either of us out."
I shrugged. "Maybe. It's a lot to take in."
Quentin nodded, finishing off his nutrient pack with water from his cup. "I'm sorry you didn't find them."
"It was a slim chance anyway." I looked at the only window in the room, a mottled glass skylight above the table in the center of the open space that let in a bit of core-light. "Shouldn't have gotten my hopes up. It never ends well."
I could feel his eyes on me. "You've lost a lot. It's hard to be hopeful, considering."
I sighed, eyes still on the window. "For a moment, back there, when I saw Colvinra and again when I thought of the people kept here, I felt it, just a bit. Like a flower peeking out above the snow." I chuckled. "Stupid flower. Forgot about the spring freeze."
"It's never stupid to have hope," Quentin whispered.
I shifted my head to look at him. "It hasn't helped me any."
Donovan grunted what sounded like agreement.
"Granted, you've got reason to have lost most of it." Quentin shrugged. "But there's always reason for a little hope."
"Why? What will I gain except a bit more disappointment?"
"Your father?" Quentin asked.
"Hoping isn't getting me any closer to him."
"Nor any farther away."
I shook my head, looking back at the window. "So it's doing nothing."
"You'll find him."
"I wish I could believe that," I whispered.
Quentin didn't answer. He leaned his elbows on the table, hands folded in front of his face. Suyef, having finished eating, moved to sit on one of the room's fabric-covered couches. Donovan remained sitting near me, for which I felt not a little bit of gratitude.
"Why do you care, anyway?" I asked.
Quentin looked down at the floor a long moment before answering.
"I don't know. I just do." He looked up at me. "Maybe because you don't. Maybe I'm just being stubborn or contrary. Someone's got to have a little faith around here."
I stared at him. "I don't even have that anymore. What's there to believe in if I keep losing the things I had faith in?"
Donovan grunted at me. "I'm still here."
"You know what I mean," I said, smiling and squeezing his arm as I looked back at Quentin. "Well?"
"Family can't be taken from you just because they're gone," he said. "Otherwise, no one would ever leave home."
"There's a difference," I said with a little more heat than I intended, "between going out in the world and having your mother, father, sister and brother forcefully removed from your life. Forever."
Quentin held up a finger. "You don't know they're all gone forever."
"My sister and mother are."
"You don't even know that much," he stated, folding his hands. "All you have is the word of-"
"Seekers," Donovan finished for him.
"Actually, it was the warden who said it, and he's not a Seeker."
I glared at Quentin. "Fine, but Seekers like you took them, and then they vanished."
"I told you before I'm not a Seeker." He plucked at the robe he wore. "I'm just borrowing the uniform to find something."
"Me?" I asked. "Everyone else seems to be looking for me. You two, as well?"
"No, but our search did lead us to you, so if you count that…" He shrugged. "We weren't looking for you."
"If I recall, you knew my father was gone."
He nodded. "Once our search brought you to our attention, our Seeker access allowed us to learn more about you. That's when we saw the arrest report ordered for your father and the subsequent report to find and detain you." He pursed his lips in thought. "The odd thing is the reports were written the same day, but they somehow got mixed up so that your father was detained well before you."
"Why is that odd?" I asked, shifting my back into a more comfortable position and rolling my shoulders back to fix my posture.
"The order to detain your father went to the right outpost," he replied. "The one to arrest you, which didn't mention your brothers, by the way. They were only interested in you. Anyway, that order went to an outpost on the far side of the shell. It took several days for them to discover their error.”
"How did they make a mistake like that?" I asked. "That seems very incompetent."
Quentin nodded. "And very un-Seeker like. They're the model of efficiency. It's either a rare case of incompetence in their ranks, or someone didn't want you detained too early."
I stared at him. "That's a large leap of logic."
"We thought the same thing." Quentin nodded at his companion. "Suyef said I was jumping to conclusions when I suggested that a few days before we found you."
"Maybe he's right?" I offered.
"It's possible, but I double checked the reports." He shifted forward his chair, leaning across the table. "The destination codes on the original reports are correct, but when they got to the switching node, someone changed the destination code on your detainment order."
A memory bubbled to the surface. My father working on something he wouldn't let me see just a few days before he was taken.
"You know something?" Quentin asked, eyes on mine, eyebrows raised.
A strand of red fell across my eye and I pushed the hair back behind my ear. "Maybe. It's possible my father had something to do with this."
I squeezed my lips together, blowing air out through them as I dredged the memory up. Across the table, Quentin ducked his head down, smothering a smile behind his shirt. I arched one eyebrow at him.
"Care to share what's so funny?" I asked, waving a hand at him to talk, head shifting slightly to match the motion.
He shook his head, dropping his shirt back down. "Nothing, it's just your thinking face is a bit, well, comical."
I scrunched my nose at him and returned to my thoughts. "Where did you say the switching node was?"
"I didn't, but it's a primary node from the main citadel to your settlement. Your father could have been monitoring it." He spread his hands. "Considering what else you two were up to, that wouldn't surprise me."
My eyes narrowed. "What else were we up to?"
"Stealing water; we discussed this already," he said.
"Yes, I recall you saying you were very good at finding information on the network."
He shrugged. "It's a talent, not one that's been very helpful in finding what we're looking for." He looked up at me. "Then again, you never know what you'll find when you go looking."
I rolled my eyes and waved him to continue.
"Anyway, I told you already that we found what you were doing with the water quotas. Ingenious solution, that one."
"You said that before."
He nodded. "I meant it. Simplest way to get around a massive amount of coding is to alter just enough to get what you need from it rather than try to change the whole thing." He leaned farther forward, beckoning me closer. "Thing is, all you and your father did was undo what someone else had already done."
I leaned over the table. "What do you mean?"
"Someone else beat you two to the punch. They altered the code to decrease the water flow leading to your shortage."
"And when we went in to make our change...” I said, trailing off.
"You simply undid their handiwork." He shrugged with his eyebrows. "As I said, ingenious solution you two stumbled on, and even more so because it revealed the original alteration to the code."
"And this information helped you?" I asked.
He nodded. "A bit. It showed us the code could be altered just so. Once we saw what you did, we went looking for more and found the original changes." He looked down at the floor. "We found that while we waited for your Seeker escort to get enough of a head start before we followed later. It's how we missed the dragon raid."
The thought of the raid brought Maryn back to the surface. A deep sadness welled up inside me, threatening to overwhelm me. To distract myself, I waved a hand at him and took a deep breath.
"You being there would have made no difference."
"Still, I'm sorry we couldn't help save your brother."
I tried to smile at him but failed. I didn't feel it.
"I appreciate the thought." My mind returned to the puzzle he'd revealed. "Why would someone want to steal our water?"
"And now you come upon what we've been looking for," Quentin said. "Well, in part."
He nodded, but said nothing.
"You going to tell me?"
He shrugged. "I'm not entirely sure I'm at liberty to say. Part of this is for Suyef to decide."
I nodded, sitting upright and craning my neck to one side, then the other, in a stretch. "I understand that much."
Quentin eyed me for a moment, lips pursed and fingers tapping together. "Still, I don't think he would have that much issue with you knowing. Else, he would speak up, right?"
The last comment he directed at his companion, who made no move to respond.
I held up a hand to forestall him. "I don't need to know."
Quentin held his gaze on Suyef, eyes narrowing and his lips pursed to one side. After a moment, he nodded.
"If he had a problem, he'd say so. We're here for two reasons. One, to find out what is wrong with the network. The water problem is one example of it. There are more." He leaned toward me, his voice lowering. "Beyond that, we're searching for the only man who may have knowledge of how Suyef's father died, and how mine almost perished twenty years ago."
"You think he's here?" I asked, waving my hand around at the outpost.
Quentin shook his head. "Not here at this prison. But on this shell, yes."
"So how does getting entangled with us help you figure that out?" Donovan interjected.
Before Quentin could answer, the lights flickered off, plunging us into darkness.
"Wait, the lights turned off?" I asked, interrupting Micaela's narrative.
"Isn't that impossible in an Ancient facility?" I asked.
She nodded. "Which is why even Colberrans, with all their misplaced hate for the Ancients, haven't been able to wean themselves from it. Ancient technology is nothing if not dependable."
"Misplaced hate," I repeated her words. "Why do you say that?"
She shrugged. "They are misinformed, as most are in this age beyond the dragon circles. Even the Nomads, for all their knowledge of what goes on down here near the core, have lost much of what was recorded about the distant past."
"I've done my own work into that field of research," I muttered, shaking my head. "The data just isn't there anymore. Even in a computer as powerful as the network."
"Isn't there at all?" she asked, arching an eyebrow at me.
I opened my mouth to retort, then paused. "You know something I don't?"
"Merely that, if you look over your notes, you'll remember why Quentin and Suyef were even on Colberra in the first place."
"The network wasn't working right, they claimed," I said without looking. "Or they just thought it was because they couldn't find the data they wanted to."
"I once believed it was that simple," she whispered, eyes moving to stare out the window. "That the data was just gone."
"What changed your mind?"
She chuckled, a slight thing that only just shook her body. "I saw a ghost."