I must preface the next part of the story with this: usually, I listened to my father. This time, however, I did not. I let it lie for a few days, more out of concern for my brothers than anything else. Donovan, after recovering from his initial shock, took to being very angry. Maryn became distraught and nearly unmanageable. Trips out into the desert with Donovan seemed to be the only thing that would calm him.
We also faced the predicament of whether we should stay in the control station. Donovan thought it would be best if we moved back to our house, an idea Maryn agreed with wholeheartedly. I was less sure. We agreed we couldn't continue living in the station, but I argued the house seemed even less secure. We remained at an impasse on this point for several nights before Maryn, of all people, stumbled on the solution.
We sat around the table, munching on a light meal. Maryn sat chattering about his day and the grand adventures he and his brother had gone on. I listened, sort of, preoccupied with the problem at hand, when something he said caught my attention.
"Wait, you went where?" I asked, interrupting his chattering.
"Which part?" He screwed his face in thought, trying to remember his words.
I searched my memory for his words. "Just before you battled the giant lizard dragon."
"We assaulted a guard tower protecting a secret tome," he said, grinning. "Donovan stunned the wizard, and I snuck the old book out the back door."
"Tower?" My eyes shifted to Donovan.
He furrowed his brow. "I think we were near one of the outlying water stations."
Maryn shook his head. "No, we were right under the giant pipe, remember? The lizard dragon used it to hide behind when he sprouted wings and took off."
"So, a relay station?" I looked between them, both nodding in answer. "And you got inside?"
Donovan shifted, spooning some pea soup into his mouth. Maryn grinned.
"Yep, Dono used all those pretty drawings you've been working on to make the panel slide right open," the youngest boasted, pointing at his older brother.
"You weren't supposed to tell her that part."
"I don't care how you got in. Just tell me what's inside and if anyone saw you." The two shared a look. "Now, out with it."
"It looks like this place," Donovan said, looking around the facility. "Control level, second floor living space, only two rooms above that instead of three and they're on separate floors." He shrugged, spooning some more soup into his mouth before adding, "It's taller than this one. So it has two floors more than this station."
Maryn nodded, his eyes big and a smile splitting his face. "We climbed all the way to the top floor. That's where the wizard hid the tome. While Dono fought him, I stole the book so we could get out of there."
I arched one eyebrow at Donovan, a smile tickling at the corners of my mouth. He hunched over and concentrated on his almost empty bowl.
"Can you remember which one you were at?" I asked.
Donovan nodded, looking up from his bowl. "You're not thinking of moving there, are you?"
I shrugged. "It's a possibility."
"That's pretty isolated," he countered, pointing a spoon at me. "If they came back, you'd be setting us out pretty far from any help."
"What help do you expect to get from these people?" I asked, pointing in the general direction of the settlement. "They move out of the way whenever the Seekers come."
Donovan opened his mouth to respond, then snapped it shut. The spoon remained pointed at me. "The settlement will see us," he said, dropping the spoon in his bowl.
I smiled. "So we make ourselves invisible."
Pulling off that stunt proved far more simple than it sounded. The people only took notice if something changed. When we moved to the control station, people were bound to notice because everyone notices what goes on around water stations, for good reason. Moving back out of the facility would get attention. We just needed to make it look like we were moving somewhere different.
We concocted our ingenious plan. Each day, Donovan and Maryn would continue their excursions into the desert. Every time they went out, they snuck a few supplies each with them. At some point during their day, they would stop by the relay station and stash our supplies in the upper chambers. Meanwhile, I returned to our house with obvious bundles designed to look like I carried more on the way to the house than on the return trip. In truth, unfolded blankets filled my pack, making it appear overstuffed. At the house, I refolded the blankets to be smaller and put some supplies and things from the house in to sneak back to the control station and out to the relay tower. While at the house, I made a point of going for some supplies in the settlement, taking them back to the house. Those, too, made their concealed trip to the relay station.
This ploy took a lot of time to pull off. All that while, I followed my father's warning. The problem we'd discovered remained untouched. At least, on the computers it did. My mind rarely focused on anything else beyond our smuggling operation.
Several days later, Donovan, Maryn and I gathered around the oval table for one last meal in the control station. Once done, we left the tower and returned to the house. Core-set was still an hour or so off, and the citizens could not help but notice us. We made our way, loaded down with bedding and a few prized possessions, back to our home.
That night, we kept the windows closed and sealed against prying eyes. Just past core-set, we dimmed the lights and gathered in an upstairs room to watch the settlement. Here and there, lights in windows began to go out. Maryn curled up at my side, head on my lap. He soon fell asleep as my hand stroked his hair. Donovan stood leaning against a wall, arms crossed, his forehead creased as his eyebrows furrowed.
"I'd ask what you're thinking, but I could probably guess," I whispered, running a finger over Maryn's forehead.
Donovan didn't answer, but looked down at our brother before returning his gaze to the window. "You know I think this is your fault." I looked up and held his gaze, staying silent. "Well, yours and Father's."
"Why we're forced to abandon another home." He nodded out the window. "Why we're standing here waiting for them to go to sleep. This predicament."
"How is it my fault?"
He turned his head back to me, eyes on mine. His jaw clenched and, after a moment, he looked away.
"You two just had to go meddling with things you didn't understand," he whispered. "Just had to keep digging for an answer you didn't need."
"The problem we found is a lot more important than you think." I nodded out the window. "To all of them, too. Not that they know that, of course."
"And didn't you think about what might happen if someone noticed? Or hadn’t you had enough of Seekers meddling in our lives?"
"Father was so secretive about it," I muttered, shifting to rest my back against the window frame and stretch my legs out across the window seat, Maryn sound asleep on my lap. "Is it that far of a stretch to assume he'd taken care to hide what he was doing?"
"Clearly, he didn't."
I glared at Donovan. "You could have said something to him, instead of taking it out on me."
"I tried." My brother scowled, crossing his arms across his chest and leaning against the far window frame. "He just hounded me for my answer to his question. You got farther with that than I did."
"I beg to differ; you caught it was the water."
He shook his head. "You're remembering wrong. You guessed it was water, and you figured out the rest. The whole thing bothered me, and tried to explain that to him, but he wouldn't listen."
"Donovan, you can't blame yourself. You shouldn't even blame him. Be mad at the Seekers."
"There's anger to share with them, too." He let out a long breath, the kind you do when you're trying to calm yourself. "Plenty for them." He turned his gaze to me. "But you two brought this one on us. Inadvertently, maybe, but you still did it."
"Blaming me for this isn't going to make it any better," I whispered, looking away from him and out the window. "Nor will it bring any of them back."
"They aren't coming back."
He said it with such finality. A weight settled down on my soul, a statement of fact my heart didn't want to acknowledge. To distract myself, I tried to find something out the window to focus on in the dark settlement. I blinked, easing myself up.
All things considered, the actual act of sneaking out of the settlement to the outlying relay station proved uneventful. Moving under cover of core-night, we encountered no one as we made our silent way out into the desert. Maryn slept the entire way, carried on Donovan's back and tied on just to be safe. We carried no packs or anything that might tip off the random person looking out a window at that hour to our intentions. Not that we needed to have worried. The settlement slept soundly.
I'm sure they must have noticed we disappeared. Maybe that's what drew the Seekers back. To this day we never figured that out. What I do know is that, for several days, we lived in that relay station, thinking ourselves very clever. Our supply gathering had been thorough, thanks to Donovan's foresight despite his misgivings. He and Maryn continued to spend most of their time roaming the desert. Worry twisted at me that they might draw attention to us, enough so that one time I attempted to follow them. I lost them five minutes out of the station and stopped worrying. A little.
And what did I spend my time doing, when caring for my two brothers didn't fill my time? I tried to resist the puzzle, to follow my father's last bit of advice to us. I couldn't do it, however. Arguing with myself over my actions, my reasons, trying to rationalize what needed done, only helped so much. Part of me said someone needed to make sure my father's program continued to operate and remain hidden from prying eyes. The settlement needed the water, after all. Part of me wanted to know who was doing it and why. Yet another part hoped the answer to where my father had been taken could be found.
So searching the database occupied my attention during those days alone. I made sure my research remained hidden and diverse, hoping it might throw off any prying eyes. My research included everything from current events to folk tales to cooking recipes. I got myself lost in the vast network of information on purpose, all the while trying to search for the necessary data. Research of current water usage got buried in historical reports on how the water system came to be. Events of modern interest in the Colberran main city swamped my work in hopes of discovering more about the Seekers and what they do. I brought up cultural studies of the Outer Dominances in order to study population and water usage trends there. It was tedious work, and it had to be finished whenever my siblings returned.
Oh, I thought that was being clever. My work had to have remained hidden. Oh, how naive I was.
The Seekers returned less than a month after our move to the relay station. Inconveniently for me, they arrived during one of my trips back into the settlement. In order to at least hold off the citizens' curiosity about where we had gone, Donovan and I took turns every few days sneaking back during core-night to our old house and being seen doing business during the day. We never did figure out if it did any good, but we were young and full of our well-conceived plans.
One day as I strolled back to our house, a sack full of foodstuffs on my arm, the telltale cloaks of the Seekers one street over greeted my eyes. I looked away and, once out of sight, hurried my pace. It was impossible to tell if they had seen me or not, nor was I even sure they were looking for me. Still, the risk was too great to take a chance on either. I rushed as discreetly as possible back to our house and once inside, locked the door. Core-set stood several hours away. To keep from worrying, I busied myself cleaning dust off the furniture and re-situating my travel sack over and over. Cleaning enabled me to peek out through the window sheers drawn closed throughout the house. My efforts to look outside revealed no sign of the Seekers. Gradually, as the day passed, I began to relax.
As core-set passed and the settlement went to sleep, I made my way back out into the desert. To be safe, the route I chose left the village heading west, the central mountain range to my right, the edge of the shell to my left. I traveled almost a chron before doubling back around to the north. Even in the dim core-light, the water pipe dominated the skyline stretching from the mountains to the settlement. Once under it, I made my way along the pipe toward the relay station.
When I arrived, however, the Seekers were already there. I huddled near a rock outcropping, looking down at two of their mounts. The front each the long, thin, single-seat hover-bike formed a bulbous nose, with a swooping tail. The machines floated a few feet off the ground just under the tower, their riders nowhere in sight. I stared down at the station at a complete loss as to what to do, when something moved just over me. I rolled to my right, but something leapt atop my body and pinned me on my back, an air pulse gun aimed at my face. Beyond the weapon stood a Seeker, cloak shifting in the swirling desert winds, dark face mostly concealed behind a cowl.
"Do nothing sudden and I won't have to discharge this and carry you," a calm, male voice said to me in an unrecognizable accent.
I nodded, and he moved off, allowing me to stand. He waved the gun toward the relay station, and we made our way there in silence. At his signal, I entered to find Donovan and Maryn sitting on the entry level against the wall to my right. Another Seeker stood guard over them, his white face also mostly concealed. My captor pointed, directing me to sit next to my siblings.
"Found her on the rise coming from the settlement," my captor muttered, stepping near his counterpart.
"Out a bit late, aren't we?" the second Seeker asked me. I kept silent. "Talks as much as these two. See anyone else?"
"No, she's the one our sensor picked up," my captor answered, shaking his head. "Been tracking her since she left."
I glanced at my brothers, and Maryn moved to sit in my lap. The Seekers ignored him.
"If we picked her up, you know the rest did," the second Seeker muttered. "They'll be coming our way soon."
My captor shrugged. "Or expecting us to bring her in." He pointed at Donovan and Maryn. "They won't be expecting them, though. Only what their sensor told them: a lone person sneaking off into the desert."
The second Seeker eyed my brothers, his blue eyes not moving from us. "If we take her in, they'll find out about these two soon enough."
I glanced at Donovan and mouthed the word "if." He shrugged and nodded at the Seekers.
"If we stay out here too long, they'll start wondering anyway and come looking." My captor pointed at me. "She fits the description of the woman they're looking for." He nodded at my brothers. "And she has two siblings."
Unable to stay quiet, I asked, "Who's looking for me?"
The two Seekers stopped talking and looked at me, neither speaking at first. The second Seeker nodded at my captor and stepped forward. My captor left the building, leaving us alone with the other Seeker. He stepped nearer and squatted down before me.
"They're looking for you...Micaela, is it?" he asked, cocking his head to one side. I nodded in answer. "And I guess this is Donovan?" He waved at Maryn in my lap.
"I'm Donovan," my brother piped up from beside me.
"Oh, my apologies," the Seeker said, looking at my other brother. "So you must be Maryn."
We all remained quiet, uncertain about what to do or say.
"As I was saying, the Seekers are technically looking for all three of you. They were quite bothered when they couldn't find you in the settlement." His eyes glanced at the ceiling. "Ingenious little place to hide. Maintenance crews won’t be by here for another, what, quarter of a cycle?"
"They just came here a couple of weeks ago," Donovan said.
The Seeker looked at my brother. "Ah, so a half cycle." He looked back at me. "As I said, ingenious."
"Not nearly so, if you found us."
He chuckled under his cowl. "That was random chance." He nodded at Donovan. "Your siblings here led us on a wild hunt tracking them. My partner outside even had a bit of a challenge at some points, and that's saying something for him."
"Couldn't you just use your tracker to follow us?" Donovan asked.
The Seeker nodded. "Sure, but my partner doesn't like those machines. Avoids using them when he can." He shrugged and turned his gaze back to me. "He does what he wants. He's survived on this shell long enough to earn that much."
I opened my mouth to ask a question, then stopped. What did he mean, survived on this shell? I was about to ask when the door opened and my captor returned.