In the morning, when our rescuers come into the cafeteria, Agent Woman is with them once again.
Excellent. Just the person I wanted to see. I swallow the food in my mouth and wipe my lips.
“I hope she’s going to give us some explanations,” Jess says next to me, still as unenthusiastic about the green slime as she’d been the night before. “She needs to tell us what’s going to happen with us.”
I rise to my feet to walk to the agents and talk to them, but before I can take as much as a single step, Agent Woman points to a man from the Cleveland Colony in the corner.
He’d been in the room with Jess and me last night, graying at the temples, distinguished looking. We hadn’t talked. I don’t know anything about him. Then the agent points to a fierce-looking black woman almost directly behind me. Then a younger guy, spindly and spotted with zits, in the middle of the room. Then at me.
Jess grabs my arm, pulling me back.
She has to let go when agents stride over to collect the chosen four. Shit. I did want to talk to the aliens, but now that they’re marching me off to an unknown destination, alarm races up my spine.
I fight the urge to run.
You’ve been rescued, the Federation’s first words to us on the pirate ship echo in my head. These aliens are not the same as the bad aliens. But no matter how hard I try to convince myself, my heart still beats in my throat.
I could fight.
I think about it for a couple of seconds, and then decide to wait and see. If I’m to convince them to take me back home, I need to gain their goodwill. I can fight later, if I find out that they’re carrying me off for some nasty alien experimentation that involves probes or anything surgical.
We’re escorted into a smaller room and offered seats. Agent Can’t-pronounce-her-name remains standing. She smiles. I’m starting to get used to her too wide-set eyes.
“I need your help,” she says in her hopelessly heavy accent. “The Zebet is in session today, and Krek Koah is on-planet to attend the hearing. One of the items on the agenda is piracy. We are going to need the four of you to give witness statements.”
The what of the what now? We all stare.
She repeats, slower, endlessly patient.
“I think it’s like a congressional hearing,” I tell the others. “We used to have those. I saw it in an old movie once. People trying to change things that didn’t work went in front of leaders to convince them to help.”
“Why didn’t they just ask the government to issue a survey?” the man from Cleveland asks.
“I don’t think they had government surveys back then.”
“So you think the Zebet is the aliens’ governing body?”
I shrug. “Best guess.”
Everyone relaxes a little.
“What’s the Krek Koah?” I ask Agent Woman.
She thinks, as if going through some Alien-to-English dictionary in her head. “President,” she says at last. “King.” She pauses. “Warlord.”
All-around head honcho. I get the picture.
“What would we have to do at this hearing?” I ask next.
“Answer a few questions.”
“Okay.” I don’t mean to talk for everyone, but I’m good with testifying. If the Zebet wants to stop piracy, I’m all for that. Also, if I do Agent Woman a favor, maybe she’ll be more likely to do me a favor.
A couple of seconds tick by. The others don’t protest either. One by one, they nod their heads.
Agent Woman breathes a sigh of relief, then says with a smile that’s a little too assuring, “We’ll fit you with translators.”
One of the other agents goes to a white, rectangular box on a corner shelf. He pops the box open to reveal four giant syringes.
“Sorry. Changed my mind.” I take a quick step back, my gaze snapping to Agent Woman. “Why can’t you translate?”
“A testimony is not valid unless it comes from a person’s own lips. Otherwise, the translator could change their words.”
Okay. Fine. I can see how that might be problematic.
“It’s just a small prick at the base of your skull,” she adds, her tone full of encouragement.
Oh, hell, no. Nobody is jabbing a giant needle into my neck.
Except… I groan. Before I could overthink it, I stride forward, lift my hair, and bend my neck to the needle-wielding alien.
“If we’re going to do this, then let’s do this,” I tell my fellow earthlings. “Whatever happens to me, if these…” I hesitate on the next word. “People can stop the pirates from taking my sister, too, I’m going to do whatever I need to make that hap—”
Small pinch? Try an icepick in your spine. I grit my teeth and try not to show how much it hurts, so I don’t scare the others.
The black woman goes next, holds my gaze as she presses her lips together. Gets a new needle. And barely flinches.
The man from Cleveland follows, his hands in fists at his sides. Cries out.
Then it’s the spindly guy’s turn. Same routine. He bites his lip so hard, I half expect it to bleed.
The agent cleans up, tossing the used needles into a disposal hole that opens and closes on the wall, all by itself. A shiny needle cap drops to the floor and rolls toward me. I pick it up, and without thinking, shove it into my pocket.
We’re still wearing the same clothing we received the day before. Tan pants with a tan top, some soft, loose material that looks pristine even after we slept in it. Probably some high-tech space material. I wonder what it’s made of. Never mind. I have more important questions.
“How did you learn English?” I ask Agent Woman as we pile into another pod to leave the hospital.
“You aren’t the first ones from your planet we have rescued from pirates.”
No way they’ve rescued any earthlings from the pirates. Nobody has ever come back.
My throat is suddenly dry. “What happened to the other people you liberated?”
“They were sent to the Federal Institute for Interstellar Studies.”
Her tone is probably meant to be reassuring. I’m not reassured. Especially, when she adds, “We must have a lot more information about your people before the Federation can decide what to do with your Earth.”
I stare at her as a mix of emotions swirls through me. Okay, mostly fury. They need more information before they will save us? Is she freaking kidding me? “I’m ready for the hearing.”
I have plenty I want to tell these freaking Federation politicians and the freaking Krek Koah. Like, get your damn act together and start saving my planet!
Except, the hearing turns out nothing like I expect.
We file into the enormous room, Agent Woman leading us to a round table in the middle. Three hundred people—I’m using the term loosely—are seated on semi-circular, raised platforms, all dressed in purple robes, looking down on us. They’re all different in shape, size, and color, yet mostly humanoid as far as I can tell. I can’t tell a lot, because my attention is glued to the man who sits straight ahead, on a platform of his own, above all others.
The Krek Koah. The president, king, warlord.
He’s larger than the largest man I had ever seen on Earth. His shoulders are nearly twice as wide as mine. He is wearing a body-hugging suit, some kind of dark blue space material I’ve never seen before. The fabric literally seems to absorb light. His muscle definition is…
Clearly visible, even from as far away as where I’m standing.
Hair the color of indigo spills down to the middle of his back, the kind of hair they used to call a lion’s mane on Earth. Straight nose, a jaw that looks like it had been cut from granite. But it’s the eyes that render me unable to breathe. His eye color matches his hair, and his gaze is locked on mine. And—here is the weird part—I can feel him in the room. I could almost swear I can hear his heartbeat. My awareness of him is…unearthly.
Oh God, I’m cracking. The stress of the abduction has done me in. Next, I will be crying in a heap on the floor like Dee.
Krek Koah stands, a fierce expression on his face.
The guy is seriously huge. And not a little scary.
The buzz in the room immediately dies. Every single person falls silent. All attention is on him.
Without moving his gaze from mine, he says, “I need this room cleared.”
Here is where I’m seriously glad for the translator in my neck—even with the killer headache I feel coming—because if I didn’t understand what he said, I would think it was ‘Off with their heads.’
And I’m pretty sure I would pee my pants.
All the politicians file for the exits, no questions, no protest.
President, king, warlord.
Agent Woman hadn’t been kidding.
I’m ready to go. I’m backing away already. I need to catch the agents and talk to them about our return to Earth.
“Not you,” Krek Koah pronounces, looking straight at me.
My throat works to swallow, but I have no spit left in my mouth.
I’m frozen to the spot while he descends the steps. His boots slap hard on the stone floor as he strides towards me. The cavernous room empties, save the two of us. He stops so close to me that if I reached out, I could touch him.
I’m so not going to touch him. I don’t have a death wish.
He smells like…ozone—a sharply clean, heady scent that makes me lightheaded.
A panicked little voice chants what-does-he-want-from-me, what-does-he-want-from-me, in my head.
Anger sits at the depth of his indigo gaze. And next to anger, wonder. And next to wonder, hunger.
Suddenly, my entire body is vibrating on the inside. My throat is too tight to talk. I think I’m going to faint.
Then he says two words, words that make no sense to me whatsoever, but seem to fill him with a deep satisfaction.