Harry leaned against the wall with his arms folded, frowning at Jack. “You cannot be serious,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “You think we should give weapon's tech to Earth's governments?”
This meeting had gone on for the better part of an hour while Harry filled them in on the latest political quagmire. The poor guy was stuck trying to force several different law-enforcement agencies into playing nice. It had been a simple suggestion – nothing more – but he could already tell this wasn't going to go over well.
Jack winced, pressing a knuckle to his forehead. “I'm dead serious,” he insisted, backing away from the other man. “Look, I'm not suggesting that we give them guns or death spheres, but some of the defensive tech like force-field generators…”
Anna stood beside him with hands clasped behind her back, tilting her head up to stare at the ceiling. “I'd like to note that I'm against this plan,” she said. “Defensive tech can very easily be turned into offensive weaponry.”
“Children,” Jena cut in. “No fighting.”
The leader of their little group sat on the edge of her desk with hands resting on her knees, directing a scowl into her own lap. “Every suggestion is worth considering,” she added. “That said, I think Anna has a point about-”
She was cut off by the door chime.
“Open,” Jena shouted.
The double doors slid apart to allow Harry's daughter Melissa to stumble into the room. The girl was hunched over with a hand pressed to her stomach, gasping as if she had just run a marathon. “Bleakness take me, girl,” Jena said. “You look like you've just seen a ghost. What is it?”
“I know…” Melissa gasped. “I know. I understand.”
“You know what?”
A wince twisted the girl's face into something painful to look at, and she stood up straight with some effort. “I know what Grecken Slade is planning.”
Jack spun around to face her.
Those words made him feel like someone had just flicked him right between the eyes. How could a high school student possibly know that? But the sincerity in her voice made it clear that she believed it.
He shuffled over to the girl with hands shoved into his pockets, keeping his eyes downcast. “Okay, Melissa, let's just take it slow,” he began. “How exactly do you know what Slade is planning?”
Melissa looked up at him with sweat glistening on her face, blinking slowly as if she'd never seen a grown man before. “Raynar showed me,” she whispered. “The other day when I visited him in his cell.”
Chewing on his lower lip, Jack shut his eyes tight. “Yeah, that makes all kinds of sense,” he said, nodding to her. “Melissa, I know you believe it, but that boy could have put any fantasy into your head.”
“It's true, Missy,” Harry added. “Anything he imagines he can force into your mind with very little effort.”
“My name is Melissa!”
The girl bared her teeth like a feral beast, hissing and seething. She backed up until she was standing in the doorway. “I know how telepathy works, but I'm telling you this is real! I felt it!”
With a heavy sigh, Jena got off her desk and paced across the room with her head down. “Okay,” she said with more patience in her voice than Jack would have expected. “Let's hear her out.”
“Really?” Harry asked.
“All suggestions are worth considering.”
They took a few minutes to get Melissa settled, offered her a chair and a glass of water. She seemed grateful for it, and Jack couldn't help but feel a little guilty for the way they had so casually dismissed her. Whatever the girl had seen, it had left enough of an impression on her to make her scramble through the hallways of the station in a frenzy. That alone made it worth giving her their undivided attention.
Anna was down on one knee next to Melissa's chair, smiling up at the girl. “You okay, kiddo?” she asked with surprising gentleness in her voice. “Would you like a few more minutes to collect yourself?”
“No,” Melissa insisted.
Jena leaned against the opposite wall with hands on her thighs, refusing to look up. “Let's get started then,” she murmured. “What did Raynar show you, Melissa? And how would he know Slade's plans?”
Melissa scowled into her drink. “Slade would visit that station on Ganymede.” She took a sip of her water, slurping as she tried to force it down. “While he was there, Raynar probed his thoughts.”
“And what did he see?”
The girl heaved out a shuddering breath, trembling as she tried to find the words. Clearly, she was nervous, but Jack couldn't say why. Maybe she thought they wouldn't believe her. “Slade is looking for something called the Key,” she said at last. “It's some kind of Overseer technology.”
Tossing his head back, Jack felt his brow furrow. “Well, at least it's not anything original,” he said. “I find it reassuring to know that the bad guys are sticking to the classics.”
Anna glanced over her shoulder with a glare that told him he should shut the fuck up right now. “So what is this Key?” she asked, turning her attention back to Melissa. “A device of some kind?”
“No, the Key isn't a thing; it's a place.”
“Do you know where?”
Closing her eyes, Melissa let her head hang. She brushed a lock of dark hair away from her face. “I don't,” she mumbled. “Somewhere on Earth, but I can't be any more specific than that.”
Harry squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head. “Well, that makes things difficult, doesn't it?” he asked, moving forward to join them. “So have we decided how credible the young telepath is?”
Jack noted that he didn't say how credible his daughter was. Poor Melissa looked so shaken; her father seemed more skeptical than anyone else here. Fathers…Doubting you is what they do best.
“The Overseers have left remnants of their technology behind,” Jena said softly. “Places where the ancient Leyrian tribes could speak with the 'spirits of the great ones.' We later realized these were holograms.”
“But no such places exist on Earth,” Harry said.
Jack paced over to the door with his arms folded, heaving out a deep breath. “We don't know that,” he countered. “Just because we haven't found them doesn't mean they aren't there.”
Melissa looked up at him with admiration in her big dark eyes. She blinked a few times, then turned her attention back to the others. “I believe Raynar,” she said. “I know that I can't offer you anything more than my word, but I trust him.”
“And I trust you,” Jena said.
She stepped away from the wall with a groan, shaking her head as she made her way across the room. “I trust everyone on my team,” she added. “So, from now on, we make this a priority. Anna, you and I are going to go through every Leyrian religious text we can find and search for any reference to something that might fit the description of this Key. Jack, Harry, do the same for your own people. It's likely that some of Earth's creation myths are at least partially inspired by the Overseers. Melissa, I want you to meet with me regularly and describe everything that Raynar showed you in exquisite detail. Any questions?”
“Yeah, I've got one,” Anna said. She turned to stare up at Jena with apprehension on her face. “Doesn't anyone else want to know what this thing does?”
“It doesn't matter what it does,” Jena said. “If Slade wants it, it can't do anything good. So what do you say we find it first and have ourselves a little game of keep-away? Sound fun to you? Good, let's get started.”
(Three months later)
At the very bottom of a stairwell, she found a door bathed in the flickering light of a fluorescent bulb on the wall. An electric buzz filled the air to the point where it almost seemed like sparks would crackle.
She pushed through the door and stepped into a parking garage where concrete pillars supported the ceiling and bright lights shone down on the yellow lines of dozens of empty parking spaces. There were few cars here, and she couldn't detect a sign of any other living soul. Nevertheless, she was apprehensive. She hated parking garages. Every time she stepped into one, she heard the gunfire in the back of her head, remembered the hulking metal giant ripping her people to shreds.
Aamani Patel let out a sigh.
As usual, she wore a black pantsuit with a gray blouse and kept her black hair tied up in a clip. It took some effort to make herself move forward, but she managed to do it without any visible delay. Projecting confidence was crucial.
Closing her eyes, Aamani took a deep breath. It happened almost four years ago, she thought with a nod. You must put such fears behind you. There are much larger concerns in the here and now.
Her car – a blue Honda Civic – was parked alone in a row of empty spaces, facing the wall to her left. The paint job still glistened after two years, but that was the result of conscientious care. What was the point of owning a thing if you wouldn't take care of it?
She deactivated the alarm.
Pulling the driver's side door open, she slipped into the car with a soft sigh and let her body relax. After the day she'd just endured, it was tempting to let herself fall asleep right here. Her car made her feel safe.
Then she noticed it.
In the rearview mirror she saw the silhouette of a man in the back seat, a man who sat poised and calm like a wolf waiting to gobble up some poor defenseless little bunny. The only thing she could say for certain was that he had long hair. “Don't be alarmed,” he said when he realized that she had noticed him.
Aamani drew her pistol from its underarm holster.
She twisted around, pointing the gun in his face, and used the dome light to reveal her unwelcome guest. He was a tall man with Asian features and black hair that fell over his shoulders. “Grecken Slade,” she said.
He smiled, bowing his head to her. “I didn't know if you would remember me,” he said, leaning back against the seat cushion. “We have much to discuss, Ms. Patel. I think we could be of great use to each other.”
She shoved the tip of her gun in his face, and he didn't flinch. Not even a bit. “The only thing we have to discuss is whether you can use one of your Keeper tricks before I pull this trigger. I'm thinking no.”
“Look to your left.”
She did so and found a metal briefcase that he had left in the space underneath the glove box. “What's this?” she asked with disdain in her voice. “Some attempt to win me over with a bribe?”
Keeping the gun on him, she reached over and set the briefcase on the passenger seat. She undid the snaps and pulled it open to reveal…pistols. Six of them stacked side by side. These were weapons identical to the one she had once seen Anna Lenai use.
Aamani frowned as she stared down at this treasure trove. “Leyrian weapons,” she said softly. “Your people have always been adamant that you would not share defensive technology. Why the change of heart?”
Grinning like the devil himself, Slade closed his eyes and tilted his head back. “It's called an exchange, Aamani,” he teased. “I thought someone raised on this planet would be familiar with the concept.”
“And what do you want in exchange?”
The tip of her gun was just an inch away from his nose, and yet he didn't seem to mind. Should she pull the trigger? Aamani had been briefed on the incident with Slade some months ago. He was persona non grata among the Justice Keepers now.
She could end his miserable existence here and now and still take the weapons. Her people could analyze them and learn how to make more. An alliance with this man would not end well; she was sure of that.
The grin on Slade's face only widened as he sank into the cushion. “I can see the calculations in your head,” he said, staring up at the roof. “Should you kill me and just take the weapons? You're welcome to try.”
Meaning she would fail.
Worst of all, she believed him. There was no doubt in her mind that if she tried to kill him, they would find her bloody corpse somewhere in this garage tomorrow morning. That left her with very few options.
Aamani turned her back on him.
Closing her eyes, she thumped her head against the seat cushion. “So what kind of information do you want?” she asked in a breathy whisper. “I am no longer in contact with your former compatriots.”
“Nothing so prosaic.”
He leaned forward between the driver and passenger's seat, smiling like a madman. “I want you to keep me up to date on the political climate in your country,” he said softly. “Do that, and I will see that you are well-compensated.”
“Why would you want such information?”
His burst of soft laughter made her feel as if she had just amused Satan himself with a very stupid question. “Let's be blunt with each other, Aamani,” he said. “You don't approve of my people's presence on your planet, and most of us don't want to be here. It should be clear to the galaxy by now that there is no Overseer tech on this benighted little world. We can leave.”
“And you believe you can help me achieve this goal?”
“With your cooperation, yes.”
“Very well,” Aamani hissed. “Tell me what you want to know, and I will see what I can do.”
The cargo hold of the tiny ship that had carried him across the galaxy was cramped and packed with empty crates pressed up against the walls. There was just enough space in the middle of the room for a SlipGate.
The seven-foot-tall metal triangle stood silent and ominous, the sinuous grooves on its surface beginning to glow with eerie luminescence. Even though he fully understood the technology, anything of the Old Ones always left him a little uneasy.
Wesley spun around, turning his back on the thing.
The bubble formed around him, making every crate and box in this room seem to ripple as though caught in the heat of an August afternoon. Half a second later, he was yanked forward, pulled through an endless tunnel.
The bubble slid to a stop, and he found himself in a spacious room with hardwood floors and cream-coloured walls that had been decked out with African tribal masks. A single man stood demurely with hands folded over his waist, head bowed in respect. Of course, he was blurry to Wesley's eyes.
The bubble popped.
“Mr. Pennfield,” Gilbert said. “It's good to see you.”
Wesley felt his lips curl, then nodded to the other man. “I've been away too long,” he said, making his way across the room. “After four years, I'd imagine that things have fallen apart around here.”
Gilbert blushed, hanging his head as if it were a matter of personal shame. “Your company was dismantled after your departure,” he murmured. “However, most of your wealth was spread through the accounts of numerous aliases. We can resume our work at your convenience.”
“Are you well, sir?”
Pressing his lips together, Wesley stared up at the ceiling. He blinked through the lenses of his glasses. “Four years, Gilbert,” he said softly. “Four years exiled from this world and forced to witness Slade's bumbling incompetence.”
“The Key, sir?”
Wesley turned on his heel, making his way toward a door in the wall with his hands shoved into his pockets. “We will find it first,” he replied. “And when we do, we will be favoured by the Old Ones.”
He pushed the door open to reveal a large balcony ringed by an ornate stone railing. In the distance, he saw palm trees standing like shadows under the starry sky and heard waves crashing on the beach. Oahu was a truly beautiful at any time of year. This place would do until he could find a more permanent residence.
After four long years, Wesley Pennfield had come back to Earth.