“Why didn’t I get this report?” Garjah tapped his screen, but it remained dark. He frowned. “What is going on?”
“We have temporarily blocked all the signals to and from this location,” Mereval said.
“Why? Security has been breached, and I should respond.”
The rest of the Kardoval marched into the room, and the aide stiffened. He saluted with one hand across his chest and backed against the wall. Seedrah had followed suit, his skin paling. Garjah stood, but he didn’t salute. He dropped a hand to the back of my chair and stood firm as we watched their entrance.
Mereval gestured to the other chairs around the oval table. Somehow there were just enough for the six of us. Quixoval, Sloval, and Lenveval all sat without ceremony. I wasn’t fooled. I’d witnessed power plays by officials before, and this reeked of orchestrated manipulation.
Had they planned this? Separate me and Garjah, debrief him about the planet, then reveal the breach? How long had they known humans were on Ardra looking for me?
“Last night, humans landed near Essell’s small ship. They have a shuttle, a crew of ten, and a ship not that far outside of the system.” Sloval stared down his narrow nose at me, and I refused to look away. I might be a scientist, but I wasn’t weak.
“No one thought to wake me?”
“They’re being monitored.” Lenveval was still neutral, but what was worse was how Quixoval had lost his smile. Mereval, for all her calm expression, made me the most wary. She’d known and still spent all morning teasing tidbits about humans from me.
Our conversations took on whole new light. Not only had she been asking about me, and humanity, but was she trying to figure out my link to the humans who came after me? I couldn’t hide the hurt in my expression or voice. “All you had to do was ask. I promised never to harm Garjah, and that means his people too.”
Garjah’s hands slipped from the chair to my shoulders, squeezing. My chest was heaving up and down, but I didn’t hold back and he didn’t try to stop me. “I have no idea who came after me. I snuck off my ship, hiding the launch of the skimmer, because I was being airlocked from every method of advancement in my career. The captain, Sonez, had it out for me. But I knew he had a beacon he had to follow before he could send anyone after me, if anyone would even go.”
I kept the role Sonez really wanted me in from Garjah. No need to reveal that kind of ugliness to him. “Maybe it’s Sonez.” I couldn’t imagine it’d be anyone else. My parents wouldn’t bother. My screen had been limited from transmitting, so there was no way they’d gotten any of my survey details.
And if we’d been able to detect the Four Arm’s presence before, I’d never have gotten the idea of going to the planet by myself in the first place.
“It’s probably Sonez.” He’d relish picking me up and throwing the rules at me until the code and charters I’d violated were so long I’d be wrapped up in punishment duty—at his discretion—for at least a decade. Maybe two considering I’d crashed the skimmer.
Garjah gestured to Seedrah. “If you will.”
Seedrah moved up to a section of the wall and tapped on it. It shimmered, and then he inserted his screen in a slot that opened. “What do you want?”
“All data stored on Essell’s device about his previous ship and captain.” When had he gotten that? I tensed and Garjah squeezed my shoulders again. He wouldn’t do anything to harm me, I had to trust that. He was irritated, but not scared or stressed after the revelations the Kardoval had made.
It was almost like he’d expected their deception and prepared for it.
Well then why the stars hadn’t he prepared me? I tilted my head back and scowled at him but kept my mouth shut. I trusted him, just as much as he trusted me.
The four on the other curve of the table, not so much. They did watch, silently, as Garjah revealed all the data he’d mined from my device before we’d left the ship. He exposed the technology for what it was—inferior to theirs and not capable of communicating over this distance.
“So now you explain this,” Garjah said. He nodded at Seedrah who disengaged his device and turned off the display on the wall.
“Our isolation has been in contention among some of the community in recent generations. We needed to be sure that you hadn’t been compromised by the dissension and weren’t planning to reveal our existence to humans and the rest of the galactic command.” Lenveval took a drink of the ruby red liquid in front of him, then licked his lips.
I shuddered at the red tint to his lips. His narrow-eyed stare and the crimson drop trailing down his chin gave me chills. I thought about offering him something to wipe it away, but I didn’t even want to speak to him. This wasn’t about me, even though it was being framed as if it was.
This was about their isolation.
“We anticipated humans arriving, if not this early. I do not have plans to reveal myself to them. Essell has not asked to contact the humans or his family. He has sought to learn and understand our culture, to adjust to his changed body, and to connect through our bond. He is not a danger to our isolation through any fault of his own.”
I did want to speak to that. “I went to a planet that was marked as unclaimed. Your isolation harms you in that way. The Galactic system doesn’t just develop interconnections between cultures, but governments, education, and more. If humans had known you claimed that planet for resources, we wouldn’t have been exploring it. I never would have gone.” I reached up to press against Garjah’s hand. I hoped he knew that didn’t mean I wished I’d never gone; I was happy with him.
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