"How much time?" the second Seeker asked.
"A matter of minutes." My captor exited, and the door closed.
"Right, we don't have much time." The second Seeker knelt before us. "I need to know one thing before the Seekers get here."
"You keep referring to them like you aren't one of them," I commented.
His eyebrows raised in unison, eyes locked on mine. "I'm not, but that's not important right now. What is important is who you are." He looked at each of us in turn. "Which one of you has been accessing the water usage data on the network?"
Donovan jolted next to me but kept his mouth shut.
"I'll judge by your reaction you at least know what I'm talking about. Was it you?" he asked my brother. Donovan shook his head. "You?" He turned his gaze to me. I held my tongue. "Fine, keep your secret. From everyone. Don't trust any of the Seekers. They'll just as soon kill you as take you to join your father."
"What do you know about our father?" I asked.
"Enough to know he's probably the brains behind your little water stealing program."
I shook my head. "We weren't stealing water. Someone is stealing it from us and we were trying to stop it."
"Be that as it may, the Seekers coming don't agree with you." He looked over his shoulder as my captor came back inside, two fingers held up. The second Seeker nodded, then looked back at me. "Don't volunteer any information. And do your best to play along."
"You expect me just to lie to a bunch of Seekers?"
"Not lie. Equivocate. Dissemble. Dodge. Just avoid the truth."
I frowned. "That can't be as easy as you claim."
He reached out, patting me on the shoulder and said, "Don't sell yourself short."
A cold chill rushed down my back at his words. My father's words. Words he'd been saying to me for years. I glanced at Donovan, who shook his head and shrugged.
The second Seeker stood up, made sure his cowl and hood remained in place, and then took a position standing over us. We all sat or stood for a moment before the door slid open and three more Seekers walked in, pulse guns drawn. They scanned the room; one signaled for the other two to search above as our captors stood watching. After a few moments, the two Seekers returned from their search, shaking their heads. The third Seeker stepped partway out of the door and signaled to someone outside.
Two more Seekers walked in, but only one drew my eyes. He stood a head taller than the rest and his cloak, while the same silver as the others’, had solid black trim along the edges. The cowl covering his face was striped gold and black, and he had eyes of solid black, visible through a small cut in the cowl. When those fell on me, another shiver went up my spine. Only when he looked away did I start to breathe again.
"Ah, our two outlanders beat you here, Squad Leader," the man said, his voice rough, though muffled by his cowl. "How disappointing."
The man standing next to him lowered his head, shoulders bowing.
"Still, you're not a complete waste," the man with black eyes muttered, stepping in to the center of the room. "Outlanders, are we to assume three children are enough of a threat to warrant you standing guard over them?"
The second Seeker, Blue Eyes, shook his head. "One is a child, the other two are adults." He pointed at Donovan. "This one is old enough for conscription, unless I miss my mark."
"Bah, these three weaklings hardly warrant both of your attention," Black Eyes stated, not even bothering to look at us. "Why didn't you send someone back to get us?"
"We've hardly been here long enough to do that." Blue Eyes held his head up, staring into the hard, cold black eyes of the Seeker in charge. "This one," he pointed at me, "was in the settlement. You can imagine Suyef’s and my surprise she made it out this far."
The squad leader jerked his head up, eyes flaring. "I've had enough of your insolence, Outlander!"
Black Eyes raised one finger and the squad leader fell silent. His hands clenched into fists at his sides.
"As you already know, our sensors aren't functioning inside the settlement. Squad Leader Pollan here decided to take the initiative and leave the settlement to see if they would work in the desert." Black Eyes moved to stand over us. "Needless to say, they did."
"We were just about to bring them in," Blue Eyes said, shrugging. "Figuring out how to mount two speeders with five riders would have proven...difficult."
Black Eyes held up a hand. "Enough of your excuses, Quentin. I don't really care. You're only here because your orders protect you." He glanced over his shoulder at our captors. "Be silent, for once."
Blue Eyes, or Quentin, as his name appeared to be, opened his mouth to reply, but Suyef, my captor, touched his arm and Quentin's mouth snapped shut.
"So," Black Eyes said, squatting down to stare at me. "These are the progeny of our leader's current distraction." He chuckled. "I'm sure it will lighten your hearts to know your father is alive and well. For now." He stood up, glowering down at us from behind his cowl. "Cross me, and I can assure you, his Eminence hears my words. I can make your father's stay in the Central Dominance quite uncomfortable."
I stared up into those cold, black eyes, waiting for him to go on. He looked over at Donovan and Maryn and then back at me.
"Which of you is most likely to talk?" he asked, turning and walking away.
The three Seekers that had investigated the tower before Black Eyes arrived remained positioned around the room. The squad leader, Pollan, stood before the door, and Quentin and Suyef remained off to my right. Black Eyes clasped his hands behind his back as he came to a stop before the network terminal.
"Better yet, which one of you will show me what it is your father's been up to out here?" He looked over his shoulder toward us. "We know you've been meddling in things you shouldn't. We know your father is the guilty one." He turned to face us, and a small smile danced across those eyes. "And we hardly want to make you children...uncomfortable. A journey to Colberra City will be difficult, for sure. Being from out here, the altitude in the Central Mountains might be a bit much for you. And the city itself." He looked at Donovan. "Have you ever been?" We shook our heads. "Well, it might be worth going just to see it, but you won't be tourists. You'll be Seekers’ guests until his Eminence has what he wants from your father." He stepped away from the terminal and stopped a few paces from us. "So, will you tell me what I want to know, or shall we go north?"
I glanced at Donovan. He shook his head, and his jaw set in a very familiar way: stubborn defiance. I looked back at Black Eyes and shook my head. The tall man shook his head.
"Outlanders, did you find out anything before we got here?" His voice turned hard and cold.
"As I said, sir, we arrived just before you," Quentin repeated. He pointed at Donovan. "The two males were out in the desert when Suyef spotted them on our patrol. We tracked them to this station. I took charge of them while Suyef conducted a search for anyone else. I wasn't in here very long before he came back saying he'd spotted movement west of here." He pointed at me. "That was her."
Black Eyes turned to face Suyef. "Let me guess, refusing to use our sensors again?" Suyef shrugged. "I'm telling you, Outlander, you keep this up and we'll ship you back to your own shell."
I tucked that bit of information away for later. I knew something had seemed different about him the moment I saw his dark-skinned face. For his part, Suyef remained quiet, standing close to Quentin. The pair seemed an odd set, facing the imposing figure.
"Someday, you'll cross that line enough for me to do something to you," Black Eyes growled. "Both of you." He turned away from our two captors. "Squad Leader," he barked out, "secure this facility. You two"—he pointed at Quentin and Suyef—"take the prisoners upstairs, and put them in one of the sleeping quarters. Since you caught them, you get to guard them all night. We'll take them north tomorrow."
An upheld hand stopped Micaela.
"Am I to assume this Quentin is the same one the Queen mentioned?" I asked, tapping a finger on the piece of paper I'd jotted down the names on earlier. “The one you said was dead?”
"It is," she said, shifting in her seat and resettling her dress around her legs.
"Can you tell me more about him?"
To this day, the look on her face upon hearing that question still haunts me. Her eyes locked with mine as a storm of emotions raged across her face. Her eyes hardened, then softened, shifted, then held mine again. Her lips compressed, opened, trembled a little. One hand clenched her dress into a ball, then released and smoothed it out. Her chest rose and fell in quick breaths, then it slowed. Finally, she shook her head.
"We'll get to him in good time," she whispered.
I stared for a moment before nodding and waving her to continue. A new note appeared next to the man's name as a reminder to ask him what he had done to warrant such an emotional reaction in Micaela. There clearly was more to the story, but she didn't want to tell me just yet. Instead, she continued where she’d left off.
Our captors marched us upstairs into Donovan and Maryn's room. Suyef moved another mattress in for me and took up watch near the door. Quentin stood with him, and the two conversed in low whispers. After a few moments, he moved to sit against a wall. He didn't say a word, just sat there, staring at the floor.
"Why do they call you two Outlanders?" I asked.
He looked up from his thoughts. "It's a misnomer, for me, at least. Him, well, isn't it obvious?"
I eyed Suyef, who was standing near the door. "The cowl does a good job of concealing your faces."
Quentin chuckled. "Even with that one, you can't miss it." He pointed at Suyef. "He likes wearing the cowl, so don't expect it to come off."
I eyed the dark skin around Suyef's eyes. "You're from another shell." Suyef dipped his head once. "Off-shellers aren't exactly welcome in Colberra nowadays." Suyef blinked, but said nothing. "Seekers, in particular, are very discriminative against them."
Quentin laughed. "That's putting it mildly."
"So why call you that?" I asked, turning my gaze to Quentin.
He shifted under my stare. "It's a power thing. That, or he's being picky about my birthplace."
He pulled the cowl and hood from his cloak back, revealing short brown hair, a long nose, and a beard equal in length to his hair. His face reminded me a bit of a statue's, straight lines, high cheekbones, and a strong jaw. But his eyes, the same color as the water high above our shell, did much to soften his appearance.
"I'm from this shell, just not born here." He nodded at Suyef. "I was actually born on his shell."
I arched one eyebrow. "Are your parents Colberran, then?" He nodded. "What were they doing on another shell?"
"Expeditionary Forces," he replied, reaching into his collar and pulling out something on a necklace. "Both of my parents were Civil Defense." He held up a pair of metal tags with small print engraved on them. "That's how they met."
"And they were assigned to this man’s shell?"
He shook his head. "My mother volunteered for it. My father, well, he ended up there under very different circumstances." He shrugged. "That's a story for another day. Suffice it to say, Expeditionary led them both to his shell, and it suited them. As Colberran as they may be, they've never been at home here." He chuckled more to himself than anyone else. "They're not even on this shell now. Off helping our Expeditionary Forces establish another base on a different shell."
I glanced back at Suyef. "So, Outlander is meant to set you two apart from the rest." Quentin nodded. "Why join the Seekers if they treat you so?"
"Resources, Micaela, resources," Quentin stated. "Now, before we get too far off topic, shall we continue our discussion?"
I didn't bother hiding my confusion. "Our discussion?"
"What you and your father were doing here."
My eyes narrowed. "You said I should just keep all that to myself. Not share it with Seekers at all."
"No, I said keep it from the others," he pointed out, nodding toward the door. "They're the ones who can make your life difficult."
"You wear the same uniform."
"Only out of necessity, but I don't expect you to believe me." He pointed at Suyef. "The fact that he's not from this shell should clue you in we're a bit different from the rest. We can save that for later. We noticed your little addition to the coding."
I glanced at the other Seeker but he remained silent. "He doesn't talk much, I guess."
Quentin barked a laugh. "You just haven't found the right topic. Once you do, he'll talk, but only as much as necessary." He glanced over at his companion. "You are being a bit quiet, even for yourself."
Suyef glared at Quentin. "When I have something worth saying, I will."
"And that's what you get most of the time. I think he's got a thing where he saves up all his words for when he needs them. Like a mental count in his head how many he's allowed to use most of the time."
Suyef rolled his eyes and went back to staring at nothing. Quentin burst out laughing. I took a moment to look at my brothers. Maryn lay asleep and Donovan sat over him, silent as Suyef, his eyes darting back and forth between our guards and the door.
Quentin's laughter died down, drawing my gaze. "Anyway, where were we?" He squinted his eyes, then snapped his finger and pointed at me. "Water program. Ingenious solution, there. Your idea or your father's?"
I held my tongue. Little reason existed to trust either of them; this in spite of the fact they appeared to have helped hide our secret and roles from Black Eyes. Still, their knowledge of us gave me pause.
"I'll assume both. Keep that from them, too." He pushed off the wall and knelt before me. "Don't volunteer any information around them. Colvinra is a high-ranking Seeker and a Questioner to boot. He likes to make people squirm and isn't afraid to cause pain. He's very good at hiding his handy work, so don't expect the no-harm orders to hold sway with him." He glanced at Donovan. "Keep your mouths shut and your heads low. I'm not sure where they plan on taking you, but it won't be a normal Seeker facility."
I shared a look with my brother. "If they want information about my father, wouldn't it make sense to take us to him?"
"Normally, I'd agree," Quentin said, nodding. "But we can't even figure out where they are holding him, and between the two of us we're pretty good at finding information like that hidden on the network. Something is keeping his location secret."
He shook his head. "They could not care less about what's visible on the network. Most people can't access it, and those that can are generally loyal to the Colberran government and, in turn, the Seekers. No, this is something else." He pointed at me. "Just remember, don't offer up any information to Colvinra. Make him take you wherever he's going to take you."
"Why are you helping us?" I asked, keeping my eyes on his.
He shrugged. "I like the underdog." He smiled. "Plus, you're right. Someone is stealing your water, and that needs to be fixed."
"So why not help us escape from the Seekers?" Donovan asked, his voice quiet but firm.
Quentin looked at my brother, pursing his lips in thought. His eyes began to move around the room as he contemplated Donovan's words. He turned to look at Suyef, eyebrows raised. Suyef shook his head.
"You have to admit, we could stand a chance," Quentin persisted, nodding at the door. "I have no doubt you could handle that squad."
"And you think you can handle a Questioner on your own?" Suyef asked.
Quentin shrugged. "I'm getting better."
"No, we didn't come here to rescue them. We take down a squad with a Questioner, and we draw too much attention to ourselves." Quentin opened his mouth to reply, but Suyef cut him off. "No, Quentin, we can't do everything."
Quentin's mouth snapped shut, and I saw something in his eyes. He wanted to argue the point and might have. I eyed Suyef. I can't say that at the time I understood what I'd just seen, but it made me think.
"I don't understand," Donovan muttered. "You're Seekers. Can't you do something?"
Quentin chuckled as he looked over at my brother. "No, Suyef's correct. Have you ever seen a Seeker fight?" Donovan shook his head, as did I when Quentin looked at me. "Let's just say a pair of brand new Seekers fresh from their academy is a formidable duo to defeat." He pointed at the floor. "There are five of them down there, four of them from the same squad. Those four haven't been apart since they left the academy." Quentin shifted and pointed at Suyef. "Now, my friend here could easily handle a pair of them, and with my help probably the whole squad." His voice dropped to barely above a whisper. "But he’s right. Only a fool takes on a lone Questioner. No one tries it when that same Questioner has an entire squad of Seekers to back him up." He shook his head and spread his hands. "I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking when I suggested we might take him on. Had we found you sooner, maybe we could have helped you stay hidden. For now, until something else comes along to change the game, you're Colvinra's."
He stood up and walked over to stand near Suyef. I sat there, not sure what to do or say.
"So, that's it, then?" Donovan blurted out, his tone elevated and fist clenched. "You're just going to let them have us?"
"Until we see reason to risk our lives to rescue you and a more viable means of doing so, I'm afraid we have to wait," Quentin replied, shrugging and looking at me.
"Considering you were just trying to convince your friend to try, it's hard to take you at your word," I said.
"Sorry, but he's right. There's not much we can do. Yet."
"You could help us escape," my brother hissed. "Get us away from here before they take us like they took Mother, Father, and Jyen."
"Seekers took your mother, too?" Quentin asked, glancing over at me.
I nodded, looking down at the floor. "And our youngest, my sister. They were sick and a threat. Or, so the Seekers said."
"And they said they took them to a hospital?" I nodded again. "Did you ever get to see them there?"
I shook my head. "They promised travel papers, but the papers never came."
Quentin glanced at Suyef. "Have either of you ever known anyone to get permission to go to a Seeker hospital?"
"No," I replied, feeling a cold chill go down my spine as the pair of them traded looks. "Why?"
Quentin turned his gaze back to me, and the look in his eyes sent a tremor of fear and sorrow through my body.
"Seeker hospitals don't exist."