"We reach Deremorn in five minutes," Makira announced over the speaker system. "An escort force is on its way to your chamber, Lemont. If you cooperate, this won't take long."
And if I don't? Zach mused, but did not bother to explore the possibility. He couldn't pass up the chance, no matter how slim, of getting a word in with Malachi.
But how? The Prince of Justice probably resided in a prison of his own, albeit a much more comfortable one than the White Fang. Halfield couldn't risk losing his number one human weapon. Simply finding his brother alone and unguarded, Zach pondered, would take a fair amount of skill and a tremendous amount of luck. Not exactly the job for a thirteen-year-old hostage.
So Zach would need help he could find. Moments later, as he was weighing out his options, the door slid open, revealing three Coalition soldiers decked in full battle gear, helmets and all. Fortunately, all three were human. At a brisk pace, they led him through the barracks. He kept his eyes focused on the man in front of him, ignoring the hundreds of other human and Jira soldiers preparing for the day.
The men led him to a dressing room and told him to suit up. His new outfit lay tightly packed into a black metal wardrobe. Mercifully, as he strapped on the garments, he found that they did not include leg extensions. Minutes later, he left the room dressed in layers upon layers of civilian wear, complete with a tight-fitting, padded snow hood. The transparent covering on his face allowed him just enough air to breathe. A display screen somewhere along the way told him the date was November 26th. The arctic climate of Eagle Isle required heavy coats even in the summer. The winter was another subject entirely.
Security mandates did not permit hostage vessels to dock within the climate-controlled hangars. That meant the Salamander would have to use the exterior landing pad, hence the reason for Zach's insulating attire. If they did not hurry, he could easily acquire frostbite during their short walk to the hostage center.
The winds of Deremorn lived up to their reputation. As the three soldiers led him out of the Salamander and down a long set of steps, Zach thrust his gloved hands into the folds of his jacket, making every last attempt to keep them from turning blue. A blinding snowstorm obscured their surroundings. Zach's legs shivered so horrendously he nearly plummeted down the narrow staircase. Here on Eagle Isle, hundreds of miles north of the chilly forests near Tulano, it was said that the snow never stopped falling save for a single week in June.
"Welcome, Zachary Lemont. A landing party awaits you." boomed an amplified female voice that chilled him even more than the wind. The voice's owner remained out of sight. A second later the disembodied sound continued, "Foreign combatants, thank you for your cooperation. Relinquish your weapons at the foot of the stairs and all will proceed smoothly."
Zach's companions huddled more tightly around him, though not enough to abate the blizzard's raging attack on his face. In Tulano, Zach had loved the snow. He had run it, played in it, rolled in it with all the pleasure of youth. Now the white shrapnel seemed no more than another of Halfield's monstrous schemes.
The staircase ended abruptly, leaving them knee deep in the crystalline slush. A series of muffled thuds interrupted the howl of the storm as the three men discarded their firearms.
Slowly, a large group of humanoid shadows emerged out of the icy fog. As they surrounded Zach and his escorts, the amplified voice from far overhead bellowed, "Foreign combatants, return to your vessel and await further orders. Zachary Lemont is in the Republic's hands
She had not been speaking figuratively. Dozens of frigid, steely hands grasped Zach's body instantaneously. Their grip felt colder than the blizzard itself. Colder than despair. Colder than Halfield's own heart.
Zach would have gone numb and collapsed had the hands of his escorts not kept his limbs alive and upright, dragging him forward as though sleepwalking. Long ago, his bulbous body had shielded him from winter's deadly breath. Now, with not a shred of fat on his bones, he staggered powerlessly like an icicle waiting to snap.
A few minutes of ruthless marching brought them to the face of a building with a wide door which opened without a sound. As it closed behind him, the cackle of the wind dissipated, but its chill did not. Lights came on. Zach's escort numbered around twenty or thirty. All wore identical blue uniforms with visors concealing their faces. Not an inch of skin showed. They continued to march at an unrelenting pace. From what little Zach could see of the room, it stretched off to infinity. Miles ahead, his fate awaited him.
As they marched him inch by painful inch down the vast hangar, Zach tried to recall the last time he had walked anywhere on his own will. Or if he ever would again. In his state of eternal captivity, he pondered the fleeting concept that some called freedom. He called it childhood.
Occasionally they would pass a vast window that offered Zach a brief glimpse of the city beyond. The view did not satisfy him. On television, the scintillating lights of Deremorn had captivated him for years, promising a metropolis full of romantic intrigue. Instead, Zach saw only a couple of dark, nondescript skyscrapers looming out of the impenetrable curtain of fog.
His dread deepened with each passing step, but so did his anticipation for the coming reunion. Every time they rounded a corner in the maze of hallways, he half expected to see Malachi sprinting toward him with open arms and a radiant smile. In Zach's fantasy, his brother would shove the soldiers aside and hoist him above his head, embracing him in plain sight of all Loratia. But reality had a way of dashing his hopes. Malachi probably lay miles away, locked inside some formidable fortress in the farthest corner of the capital, where no crazed assassin could ever reach him.
Two hours later, Zach sat on a bench between two Loratian guards while strangers negotiated the price on his head.
"Attention, servants of the Republic of Loratia," a man blared from the front of the palatial chamber. "The hostage will now be presented before the Diplomatic Exchange Committee."
The two men seized Zach's wrists and pulled him into a standing position. From there he received a decent view of the expansive hall. Built like a theater, but suited to quite a different purpose, the Exchange Committee chamber contained hundreds of semicircular rows of benches sloping down toward a stage where the speaker stood behind a podium. Above his head, an enormous television screen occupied most of the front wall. Right now, it remained dark and silent. Zach stood in the front row amidst his entire escort force. The rest of the theater brimmed with anxious spectators, civilian and military alike, fidgeting on the edge of their seats as they whispered predictions of the day's outcome.
"Zachary Lemont, age thirteen," announced an unseen voice full of pompous energy. "Convicted of treason on July 15th, 3134 by the Tulano Court of Wartime Justice. On November 25th," continued the hidden man, who finally revealed his location with a twirl of the microphone, "He fell into enemy hands during the attack on the White Fang. Today, on November 26th, 3134, we hold civilized council with his captors to negotiate their reward for the proper delivery of this traitor to the just hands of the Republic."
Too many adjectives, thought Zach. In his mind, anyone who had to legitimize their actions with words like "civilized" and "proper" reeked of duplicity.
"Thank you, Citizen Lambert," replied the man at the podium. He looked about fifty, with thinning blond hair, narrow glasses, and a voice that bleated like a sick trombone. Golden medallions riddled his midnight blue jacket. "Now," he proceeded, "Will the party responsible for the kidnapping of Zachary Lemont come forward."
Zach almost chuckled. If he could round up everyone who had kidnapped him in the last few months, they would fill a small city. But in this case, only one person answered the call. A pale, slim woman dressed in an elegant green uniform stood up and faced the podium with wary attentiveness.
"Corrine Bradshaw, Captain of the hostile frigate Salamander," boomed Citizen Lambert, the audacious herald. "She has confessed full responsibility for the capture and transport of the hostage on November 25th. She has also surrendered all armaments previously belonging to her crew, and pledged loyalty to the standards of diplomatic law."
"As expected," wheezed the decorated man at the podium. "And now, will the foreign minister of the Loratian Republic step forward."
An elderly, gaunt-cheeked man with oily grey hair stood up on the other side of the room, silently awaiting the herald's raucous introduction. With much enthusiasm, Lambert identified the older gentleman as Citizen Reginald Bimberton, twice-elected member of the Legislature and wartime foreign minister. One of Halfield's lapdogs, Zach thought in contempt. Could he have appointed anyone who looks less trustworthy?
"Excellent," declared the uniformed man when Lambert had finished. "Then I, Colonel Arthur Garrett of Loratia's 97th Artillery Division, do hereby commence the negotiations of Zachary Lemont." He motioned for Zach and the two diplomats to be seated. "Citizen Bimberton, you have the floor."
"Thank you, Colonel," squawked the froglike Bimberton. "Now, as you certainly understand, Bradshaw," he began, turning to face the pallid woman across from him, "This desperate situation prohibits us from simply granting your freedom in exchange for the traitor." Corrine Bradshaw gave a brisk nod but did not look at him, probably out of repulsion. "In addition to seizing one of our most notorious traitors, you have also caused the Republic millions of Quadrelli in property damage over the last few days."
"Citizen Bimberton refers, of course, to the assault on the White Fang that began the night of November 24th," interrupted the Colonel with an asthmatic cough. Zach wondered how the man could ever lead troops into battle with that pitiful voice. "The exact sum of the repair costs will equal," he looked down at his podium, "Eighty-four million Quadrelli. Failure to produce this sum by midnight tomorrow will result in the death of all parties involved in the kidnapping." Bradshaw's eyes widened, but she kept her lips sealed until Garrett nodded to her and gave her the floor.
"Colonel Garrett, Citizen Bimberton," she addressed them with admirable composure, "I'm afraid to say we are unable to produce the full sum at the moment. The total worth of the Salamander is no more than thirty million, and we have less than ten million in our accounts." Her soft but adamant tone gave Zach strength, despite the hopelessness of her words.
"That would be unfortunate," the Colonel bleated. "Citizen Bimberton, do inform us of the Legislature's opinion on the repair costs."
"The terms are absolute," croaked the politician with vile delight. "Our Republic believes in avoiding unnecessary slaughter, which is why we have arranged this deal. But if Bradshaw does not accept our demands," he added, licking his sallow lips, "Then these negotiations are complete."
The entire audience seemed to exhale at once, creating a wave of disappointment that perplexed Colonel Garrett. "What is all this commotion?" he demanded, gesturing for the crowd to quiet down. "We cannot simply bend the law whenever it becomes inconvenient. The White Fang must be repaired." When the room had come to a deathly hush, he continued, "Now, Bradshaw, do you have anything to add?"
"Yes, Colonel Garrett," she replied, masking her fear beneath an aura of professionalism. "I would like to add that we have captured other war criminals as well as Zachary Lemont. If those criminals were returned to the Republic, perhaps a longer deadline could be established."
The Colonel rested his chin on his palm. "And Citizen Bimberton," he sighed, "What is your stance on this proposition?"
"The idea is ridiculous," Bimberton scoffed. "We are in a state of war, and the repairs must begin immediately! Besides," he went on, indicating Zach, "this traitor, the brother of our Prince of Justice, is worth more than all of your filthy war criminals combined!" Bimberton clasped his hands, immensely proud of his reviled words.
Zach sighed. It all felt horribly familiar. Just as his trial four months ago had assured him of the Republic's bottomless corruption, so would this day's affair. His vain hope for a family reunion had vanished the moment Bradshaw had begun to speak. At this point, he merely wished they would cease their petty arguing and throw him back in the White Fang to live out his years in silent austerity.
But diplomatic sessions were not particularly known for their brevity. The floor returned once more to Colonel Garrett. "It appears," he droned, "That despite the best efforts of Bradshaw and her crew, approximately forty-four million Quadrelli of repair costs remain to be paid. If someone else were to contribute to the cost of the damage, perhaps we can arrive at a deal."
The crowd had started whispering again, this time with increased agitation. Zach heard his own name mentioned more than once, but he could discern little else from their murmurings. He couldn't tell if they wanted his blood or wanted him to go free, but they seemed highly irked by Garrett's suggestion. After all, the economy had yet to pull out of its most recent slump, and forty million quads had never been cheap.
"Who, then, shall bear the costs?" replied Bimberton with a chilling sense of triumph. "The federal budget cannot take any more expenditure this year, and certainly none this vast. Must the meals and clothing of thousands of Loratian soldiers be sacrificed in order to repair our own infrastructure?"
"You liar! You just said the White Fang came first!" screamed a spectator from the back of the room. Everyone spun around and stared. The heckler sat down instantly, but far too late to go undetected. Soldiers who had been guarding the exits quickly closed in on the young, bearded man, whose expression of defiance turned to one of terror. After silencing him with a blow to the head, two soldiers carried him out.
When the whispers of excitement had stopped and all had been accounted for, Colonel Garrett cleared his throat and continued. "Now, before we were so rudely interrupted, I had meant to suggest to Citizen Bimberton someone who might be willing to contribute." The colonel paused, glancing toward the herald, who stood in the corner nearly salivating for his next duty. "Citizen Lambert, if you don't mind…"
"Of course I don't mind, Colonel," boomed the radiant man. "The hostage, of course, will need no introduction to our next guest, but the rest of us might." Zach's eyebrows arched as the herald gestured toward the screen at the front of the room, which instantly flicked to life. The enormous moving portrait gazed down at them with grim apprehension. Zach almost choked on his own breath when he recognized her.
"I present Citizen Alexandra Lemont," Lambert continued, prouder than ever. "For those of you who are unfamiliar, she is the mother of both the hostage and our very own Prince of Justice."
At first, Zach gaped. His eyes pleaded for mercy with all the strength left in him, but his mother gave no sign of recognition. He realized, rather sheepishly, that although he could observe every twitch of her eyes, he remained out of her field of vision. No accident, thought Zach. Bimberton must have angled the cameras to fit exactly that purpose.
"Thank you, Lambert," Garrett wheezed. "Now, Citizen Lemont, I give you the floor."
"I believe you already know my situation," snapped the image of Alexandra, her eyes aflame. "You took my son, my only remaining son, a child of thirteen years, and nearly had him killed at the White Fang. And now you offer him back to me with a price on his head? How low will this mighty Republic of ours stoop before the war comes to an end?"
Alexandra Lemont seemed to have aged a decade in the mere months since Zach had seen her in person. Deep grooves lined her eyes and mouth like scars in the soul. Zach felt as if he had carved them himself. Though still a year shy of forty, she bore the fatigued countenance of a woman on her deathbed. But the fierce pride in her glare remained, intensified by recent adversity.
"Evidently, not low enough to execute prisoners," replied Garrett, evoking a grimace from Zach's mother and a series of angry mutterings from the audience. "And as I'm sure you understand, Citizen, we do not intend to sell you your son for a price. We simply ask that you and your husband contribute to the costs of repairing our war damage. Citizen Bimberton, would you care to elaborate for Citizen Lemont?"
"Indeed I would, Colonel," Bimberton sniveled. "The idea behind the negotiation is this," he explained condescendingly. "The White Fang must be repaired and strengthened for our planet to be safe once more. Now, at first we insisted that the attackers reimburse us for the full price of the damage, but since their funds proved insufficient, we require additional support from the Loratian people." Alexandra Lemont rolled her eyes. She did, after all, already understand the situation, but Bimberton's ego prevented him from noticing her impatience.
"However," Bimberton continued, enjoying his own voice far too much, "Because of the involvement of your son Zachary in this situation, we could make alternate arrangements for the hostage if the Lemont family chose to cooperate."
"What kind of arrangements?" Zach's mother snapped in response, flashing her pearly teeth across the massive screen. "Be a little more precise, Citizen, about what you intend to do with my son."
"That would all depend on the degree of your cooperation," Bimberton squealed. "I would like to point out, though, that your family already owes the Republic almost thirty million Quadrelli. Surely you do not forget the fifteen-year loan concerning your son Malachi?"
"It expires in six months. I'm aware," she retorted. "But today you ask for forty-four million Quadrelli while you hold my son hostage. Was that part of the bargain?"
The crowd whispered frantically. Zach covered his face with his hands, unable to stare into his mother's eyes any longer. Her face had too much of Malachi and too little of Zach. Every second he looked at her image tore him further away from the family he had betrayed.
"Please, citizens, let us be reasonable," Colonel Garrett intervened wearily. "The Lemont family stimulus is irrelevant to today's negotiations. Citizen Lemont, today I have only one question for you. Will the Lemont family, by tomorrow night, graciously contribute forty-four million Quadrelli to the future security of our planet? A simple yes or no will suffice."
All fell silent. Zach's mother, from her Tulano office on the other side of the globe, faced the camera with pursed lips and unreadable eyes. Her stoic hesitation confused both the audience and the loathsome politician in the room. Bimberton, who had apparently felt certain of her response, now stared up at her image with troubled anticipation. Captain Bradshaw, for her part, had bowed her head in a gesture of pious humility. And Zach simply hid his eyes, wallowing in guilt and despair, waiting for the madness to end.
When Bimberton seemed on the verge of exploding and Garrett had just begun to cough again, Alexandra finally declared her fateful choice.
"No. I will not."
Colonel Garrett gave a raspy wheeze. Bimberton's sallow face turned scarlet. Even Bradshaw's imperturbable serenity gave way to shock. The most intense reaction, though, came from the hundreds of men and women seated behind them. A thousand brazen insults came hurtling through the air at once. Half the crowd screamed at Alexandra's image. The other half directed their anger toward Zach. Soon the rioters' cries had merged into a single chant of "Make them pay." Zach could only hope they were referring to the money and not his life.
A buzzer sounded, splitting the air in two. Even the most vociferous protesters found their voices muffled by this new blare. Zach tried to plug his ears, but the flagrant noise had already penetrated his skull, rattling every bone in his body. When it finally ended, the negotiators, hostages, and spectators sat in edgy, guilt-ridden silence. Zach also noted that the screen bearing his mother's image had gone dark.
"Thank you," boomed Colonel Garrett, his face fuming red, "For respecting the sanctity of this diplomatic session!" Zach stole a quick look behind him to find every member of the crowd staring at the floor with slumped shoulders. Only the herald, Citizen Lambert, seemed unfazed by the tumult. The rest of the room could not recover. Even Captain Bradshaw's serene posture had given way to shame. Bimberton stroked his pointy chin and rubbed his eyes, searching for meaning in the madness. Soldiers paced about with uncertainty, brushing their fingers over the assault pistols at their belts. In addition to the thirty or so armed men already patrolling the chamber, dozens more began to silently file in through the side doors. And Zach, for his part, had a burning desire to jump up from his seat and sprint from the room, even if it meant being shot.
"Let us continue," Garrett wheezed in a more controlled voice. "Now, because Citizen Lemont has refused our request that…"
"Excuse me, Colonel," burst the herald with his usual bravado, "But I have just received word that we have a newcomer in this diplomatic session."
Zach cast his eyes warily on Citizen Lambert, whose pompous grin belied the tension in the room. Garrett gave a loud sigh, groaning "Go on, Citizen."
"Thank you," Lambert boomed as the audience rolled its collective eyes. "And now, a man who needs no introduction!"
But you'll probably give him one anyway, thought Zach, clenching his teeth. He wasn't sure how much longer he could bear the herald's grandiloquence, the colonel's incompetence, or the politician's sliminess. But his expression froze when a door opened and Malachi Lemont strode into the chamber.
Zach's eyes widened, but his brother failed to return his gaze. The Prince of Justice, dressed in dark blue military robes, stared straight ahead at no one in particular, his blue-green eyes devoid of expression. No one spoke. The audience had begun to fidget again when Bimberton's chilling voice shattered the silence.
"How charming. A family reunion," he snickered, to the disgust of almost everyone in the room.
"Out of order," Garrett barked with an awkward cough. Malachi's presence clearly threatened the Colonel's already precarious authority. Clinging to his last threads of dominance, the asthmatic Colonel brusquely scolded Bimberton for his distasteful interruption. "One more such comment," the Colonel emptily threatened, "Will be grounds for removal from this diplomatic session!"
"Bold words," declared Malachi, thrusting himself into the conversation as he sauntered toward Garrett's podium. "For an officer who secretly deserted his battalion at the Siege of Kiru Estir." Every mouth in the audience gave an audible gasp. Zach pitied the red-cheeked Colonel, who opened his mouth as if to apologize, before shutting it again and bowing his head to the ruin his distinguished career had suddenly become.
"Yes, I'm surprised they haven't already stripped you of your medals," Malachi continued, making Zach cringe. "I guess it shows that war can make cowards of even the best of us."
The crowd had begun to mutter again, and not to Zach's surprise. This was not the brother he knew and loved, the brother he had sworn to die for. This new Malachi had destroyed a commander's reputation in the blink of an eye, smirking as he did so. And not once had he so much as glanced in Zach's direction. As the Prince of Justice turned away from the Colonel and back toward the audience, the lighting caused a deep shadow to fall across those blue-green eyes.
"Citizens," he bellowed, in a strangely detached voice, "On behalf of our mighty Republic, I come here to resolve this diplomatic session with due haste and fair treatment to all parties involved. In all knowledge that neither my family nor the prisoners of war can cover the cost of repairs, the generous people of Loratia will provide the remainder of the costs."
This time the spectators lost all restraint. Zach thought he saw a smile creep across his brother's face as the chamber erupted into a brawl of vociferous taxpayers hurling complaints toward the front of the room. Buzzers went off, soldiers brandished their weapons, and Lambert called for a truce, but nothing could dispel the riot. Zach buried his face in his hands as abusive language rattled his eardrums and harried soldiers dragged him to a safer corner of the room. Even Citizen Bimberton appeared shocked by Malachi's proposition, and had joined the protesters in their shouting match. At one point, when Zach came within a few paces of his formerly-beloved brother, he cried, "Do something, Mal!" but the Prince of Justice turned away in smug silence.
And then Zach heard the first shot.
At first, the troops had been able to contain, though not pacify, the unruly mob of unarmed civilians. A muzzle jammed into the jaw proved frightfully effective at silencing even the most virulent protesters. Most froze at even the sight of a firearm. But the soldiers, trained and armed as any professionals, could not have foreseen the sheer number of furious men and women who had been let into the diplomatic chamber. Before long, one dark-suited Loratian regular in the midst of threatening an aggressive woman received a devastating blow to the skull. His associate took one look at the culprit, a seven-foot, three-hundred pound beast of a man, and shot him in the leg.
Once the bullets began to fly, not even Malachi could stop the massacre. Nor, it appeared, did he care to. Zach scanned the room for any sign of his brother, but Malachi had just departed through the same door he came in. As a few of the soldiers gathered around Zach took aim into the crowd of increasingly violent protesters, they momentarily forgot their duty of protecting the hostage. And in those few seconds, Zach had a brief, deranged idea.
He sprinted for the door. Each of the men spun on his heels, grasping for his frail body with their bulky arms, but the chaos slowed their reaction time. One of them managed to let loose a bullet in his direction, but by that time he had already crossed the threshold into the hallway where Malachi had gone. The bullet ricocheted off the door just as it slid shut behind him.
The hallway loomed ahead of him, as stark and unforgiving as any of the thousands of corridors he had traversed at the White Fang. Sure enough, he spotted his brother's unmistakable silhouette about a hundred yards in front of him. Curiously, Malachi walked alone, or so it appeared. Zach found it hard to believe that the Prince of Justice would walk anywhere without an escort at a time like this. But then again, almost everything about Malachi was hard to believe.
Zach faced a dilemma. Should he run or stay put? Either option could put his life in danger. Should he call out to his brother or just wait for the telepathy to kick in and reveal his location? Malachi could probably hear the questions going through Zach's head, even from this distance, but the Prince of Justice didn't so much as turn around. The distance between them was too great. And any second now, troops would bust in through the door and either shoot or arrest him. He honestly wasn't sure which end he would prefer. But right now, with nowhere to hide and no one to save him from his own recklessness, the situation left him with only one option. Zach ran for his life.
And he didn't make it far. Sure enough, a dozen or so fully armed men burst through the gateway behind him, swinging their assault pistols in a wide arc. "Freeze," barked the one in front, trotting up to Zach with his at arm's length. "We've got the hostage," said one of his cohorts into an earpiece. "No cause for alarm," declared another.
Zach, of course, had cause for alarm. Only being ninety percent of an idiot, he shrewdly chose to throw his hands in the air rather than take his chances with the barrage that would otherwise follow. With a sigh of defeat, he watched Malachi's shadowy outline disappear around a corner as the men began to haul him back into the chamber. Then they would throw him back on a shuttle, send him off the White Fang, and toss him back in the room on Level Nineteen where he belonged. And in fifty years a child would come to his cell and he would recount this unfortunate episode.
When the door opened again, a short but intimidating Loratian officer stood in the opening, wearing a dark visor that obscured her features. Even so, the shape of her body revealed her femininity. Her left hand clutched a Red-Eye laser pistol, the kind reserved only for military bigwigs. The woman seemed to startle the other soldiers as much as she frightened Zach. "I think he'll be safer with me from now on," she snapped, her voice dripping with cold disappointment. "Why don't you boys get back to your posts," she chided, "And I'll escort the hostage back to his unit." As the group of men shuffled guiltily toward the door, she pointed to her badge and added, "Tell them Lieutenant Hendricks gave you a new set of orders."
"Forgive us, ma'am," replied one of the soldiers in a youthful voice, "But shouldn't a few of us accompany you to protect the hostage?"
In response, the woman gave a deep sigh and drew a short metal stick from her belt. Zach barely knew what was happening when an agonizing jolt in his neck sent his body writhing to the floor. He shrieked. Before long, the electrical convulsions subsided, leaving him a limp puddle of misery.
"Thank you, but I think he's under control," remarked the woman as she stuck the taser back in her utility belt. The rest of the men quickly scuttled around Zach's crumpled body and back into the negotiations chamber.
"Get up, sleepyhead," she ordered with feigned sweetness once they were alone. Awake, but dizzy and aching, Zach dragged himself up into a sitting position and squinted up at her faceless helmet.
"What just happened?" he moaned.
"What happened is that I just saved you from twenty more years at the White Fang," she boasted. "By the way, what was it like?" she added, as if asking him about a vacation.
Zach grunted in response. Still on the ground and semi-paralyzed, he waited for her to extend her hand. She never did. Cursing to himself, he picked his aching body off the floor, rubbing the numb spot on his neck.
"Who the hell are you?" Zach blurted once his breathing had returned to normal.
"Huh," she snorted. "I thought they'd have taught you some manners back at the Fang, if nothing else." He bit his lip in anguish. "And you can call me Hendricks," she told him as an afterthought.
Zach nodded warily. "And what was that business about saving me?" he asked.
"Never mind that for now. We have to move," she replied, before breaking into a brisk walk down the hallway. He struggled to follow. Curiously, she led him away from the diplomatic chamber, down the long tunnel where he had tried to escape just a few minutes earlier. Malachi had long since vanished into Deremorn's dreary depths, but Zach could still hope.
"You're with the Coalition, aren't you?" Zach asked after several minutes. Her silence told him all he needed. Zach nodded. He had been puzzling over her actions ever since they had started walking, and nothing seemed to add up. She had stopped the guards from taking him away, zapped him in the neck just to show she was for real, and then started speaking to him like he was a toddler. Not the typical captor-hostage relationship, Zach mused. So Hendricks was some sort of undercover saboteur who had slipped into officer's attire. Had she killed the real Lieutenant Hendricks or simply invented the name? Whatever the case, she had certainly used a taser before.
"Was all that really necessary?" Zach groaned, rubbing the site of impact on his neck. Soon he would have another bruise to add to the collection. At least the lump on his head had almost healed.
"Don't be such a baby. I had it on the lowest setting," she chided without so much as glancing his way. "Any higher and you'd be out cold."
"I might prefer that."
"No, you wouldn't." They kept walking. After a pause she said, "But I would."
Fine young lady, Zach concluded. They kept moving.
For the next twenty or so minutes, Hendricks kept him at a jaunty but not ludicrous pace, pausing only to salute when a superior officer passed beside them. Occasionally they would, shoot puzzled looks in Zach's direction, recognizing him from the broadcasts of just a few minutes ago, but thankfully no one stopped to question the lieutenant's actions. Before long, they had left the diplomatic headquarters and boarded an above-ground train that took them straight through the heart of Deremorn. On their way through the station, Hendricks had to submit to a series of prying questions about where she was taking the world-famous hostage.
"What do you mean, why did we leave the chamber?" she snapped. "Didn't you hear about the riot back there? I'm taking him to the barracks, where he won't be shot by our own men."
"If you want to take him on a sightseeing tour, you can wait in line like everyone else," the guard sighed. "Next traveler?"
"This is a matter of national security!" Hendricks persisted, drawing the glares of several civilians behind them. "If we do not board this train this instant, the hostage may die!" Zach tried to feign sickness, but no one seemed to be looking at him.
"In that case, where are your troops, Lieutenant?" growled the security guard. "He isn't even handcuffed, and it would be careless to take him through Deremorn unguarded." A crowd had already started to form around them, and the guards were struggling to contain it.
"I figured it would be best not to draw attention," she replied coldly. "So if you don't mind, Citizen," she scoffed, grabbing Zach by the wrist and yanking him past the checkpoint, "We're getting on this train. And may I remind you, refusing orders from a lieutenant is treason."
The disgruntled guard backed away and pressed the button that lowered the bridge onto the flying train. They hustled aboard, finding an empty cabin with hard metal seats. The doors closed, leaving the two of them alone in the together as the train took off with a roar.
Neither of them spoke for the next ten minutes. Occasionally, Zach caught glimpses of the frostbitten city through the tiny windows above his head. Loratia's capital made Tulano look like a village. You could drive a cruiser through Deremorn's congested airways for days and never reach the other side. At the city's dead center, the Citizen's Tower thrust its bleak and jagged outline into the howling sky.
"Is that where he ran off to?" Zach wondered aloud as they passed through the shadow of the massive tower.
"Not quite," Hendricks whispered.
"Then where?" Zach whispered back, catching the hint.
"You'll see in a second," the agent replied, murmuring so softly Zach had to lean forward and strain his ears. "I need you to listen very carefully."
Minutes later, Zach found himself wedged inside a square ventilation tube no wider than a pine tree. Why did I agree to this? he wondered, not for the first time, as another gust of steamy air scorched the front of his face. Four months ago he could never have fit into a space so tight, no matter how painfully he contorted his skeleton. But after the White Fang, such a feat proved possible, though he didn't exactly have room to scratch his nose.
Hendricks must have lied. For all he knew, that psychotic woman probably got a kick out of watching anorexic children slither through narrow gaps. Zach didn't trust strangers easily, especially not when they zapped him in the neck. But here he was, the butt of the joke, down on his belly beneath the floor of the train, trying to find a way into the car behind him. It was the only chance he had.
Sweat dripped in his eyes, blurring his vision. He couldn't see much anyway, since the heating tract didn't have the luxury of lights or windows. Inch by inch, he made his way down the tube by pushing his hands against the metal floor and scooting the rest of his body along. After just a couple of minutes his arms and chest throbbed from the effort of contortion. If he hadn't done all those push-ups back at the White Fang, who knows how much longer he would have been stuck down there.
At times the twelve-inch tunnel rattled and shook as the train rounded a corner or changed altitude. Once or twice Zach almost lost his grip, fearing he would slide right back to where he started. Nonetheless, he kept crawling through the sweltering darkness until the faint glow of an opening cast grey, filtered light into his tunnel. As he approached the grate, men's voices drifted down from above. One of them he instantly recognized.
The voices stopped. A door shut. It took Zach nearly a minute to roll over so that he faced upward toward the grate. Through it, he saw only the bottom of a man's boot.
"Mal? That you?" he whispered to the boot. Its owner leaned over, pressed a few buttons, and carefully pried the grate open with his groomed fingernails.
"About time you found me," Zach murmured.
"No," his brother replied from above, "You found me."
With the strength and dexterity of a true athlete, Malachi hoisted Zach up by the armpits, pulling him out of the ventilation shaft and into a sweaty, brotherly hug.
"What's happened to you?" Malachi teased as he patted Zach's flat stomach. "No more second desserts?"
"You have no idea." Zach sighed, turning red. "If you thought Miss Pirelli's hazelnut loaf was bad, try eating lizard turds for four months."
"I've never tried Miss Pirelli's hazelnut loaf," Malachi mused. "But I'm sure you would love it with a bit more sugar and maybe some cinnamon…"
"Oh, stop it."
"Sorry, just playing an old game of ours."
"Not much of a game when you always win."
"Debatable," Malachi concluded with a smug grin. Both boys were laughing at this point. Despite everything that had changed, Mal was still Mal, Zach decided.
"And yes, the walls are soundproof," Malachi explained after a pause in the laughter. "And there are no security cameras. That," he added in a haughty voice, "Would be a breach of privacy."
"You've been a celebrity way too long," Zach remarked.
"And you've been a prison rat too long," his brother countered. "Apparently a sense of humor is strictly forbidden up there."
Zach smirked apologetically. Months of solitary confinement might put your willpower to the test, but they didn't give your social skills a whole lot of exercise.
The train whizzed on through Deremorn's frigid airways. Passing the Citizens' Tower, it made a sharp turn as they headed for the barracks.
"So," Zach began, sensing their lack of time, "You like raising taxes, huh?"
Malachi gave him a shrewd smile. Zach hated when he did that. "We might as well cut to the chase here. You want to know why I raised such a fuss?"
Zach nodded quickly. Icicles seemed to hang in the air between them, colder than the ones outside.
"I thought so," Malachi continued, drawing a deep breath. His eyes had that distant look that Zach had seen so many times. "I did what I could to protect you. I know it didn't look like it, but trust me. If that riot hadn't started…"
"A dozen people wouldn't have died?" Zach interrupted. The shootings in the diplomatic chamber were still ringing in his ears.
"Whoa. I'm allowed to finish sentences. You're not." Malachi joked.
"Mal, this is no joke. This is life and death we're talking about."
"Exactly," he replied with an eerie lack of emotion. "They chose to die so that you could live."
"What are you talking about, Mal?" Zach blurted. When had his brother become such a callous politician, passionless in the face of bloodshed? And when had his logic become so incomprehensible?
"Zach, Zach, Zach," Malachi sighed, placing a hand on his brother's shoulder. Zach fought the urge to shirk it off. "You seem awfully ungrateful, considering what I've done to save you."
"That's what everyone keeps telling me," Zach puzzled. " 'I saved you here. He saved you there.' The question is: why? Why am I still alive? Why does everyone keep busting their ass to save mine?"
Malachi laughed darkly. "C'mon, Zach. Think about it. You're a valuable bargaining tool. The brother of the Prince of Justice. Whoever has their hands on you can get through to me." He chuckled again. "At least, that's the theory."
"I've heard it before," replied Zach, furrowing his brow. "But what pisses me off is that they all see me as nothing more than just that. A bargaining tool. A pawn."
"So you've noticed," he responded in a schoolteacher voice. "Well, just hang in there long enough and maybe you'll get to do some saving of your own someday. That is, assuming you find your way out of this mess."
"That's my whole point!" Zach argued. "I'm never getting out of this mess! As soon as the troops catch me, they'll throw me right back in the White Fang if they don't kill me first. You must know that better than I do!"
"Why are you always so negative?" Malachi scolded.
Zach held his tongue. Years ago, he might have screamed at his brother after a comment like that, but now he knew the futility of getting angry with Malachi. So instead of lashing out, he turned away from his brother, gazing upward toward the small round window that offered a view of snow-covered skyscrapers. The blizzard had picked up, obscuring all but the nearest buildings. Somewhere out there, beyond curtains of snow and fog, his parents waited for their two sons to come home.
When he was ready, Zach turned around, deciding to address another topic. "There's something else I want to talk about, Mal."
"You think I did it."
"I never said…" he began, but cut himself off, blushing. Zach always liked to ease into difficult topics, but Malachi's abilities made such courtesies unnecessary.
"Don't be silly," he chided. "Why wouldn't I set you up for treason? What better suspect than the Prince of Justice himself?" he boasted sardonically.
"Now you're being silly," Zach replied shakily. He had been dreading this conversation for four months. "All I'm saying is that whoever put it there, you had to have known about it. Why didn't you warn me?"
"I couldn't risk breaking your heart," Malachi mocked.
That nearly sent Zach into a fit. His mind raced through the endless possibilities until it landed on the most likely one. "You know Father and I weren't close," he scoffed. "Hell, I would've loved to know he was plotting against me."
"Was he?" replied Malachi, raising one eyebrow. "I know Father better than that. I've read him thousands of times. He might be a dick, but he would never frame his son for treason. Not even his second son," Malachi smirked. Zach was not amused. "Not when it could cost him half his fortune."
"But still, why didn't you tell me?" Zach repeated. When Malachi responded with only an enigmatic smile, Zach pushed on. "Did you put it there yourself? Was that it? Answer me, Mal. Why did you set me up? Why?"
"When are you ever going to understand?" Malachi sighed, shaking his head.
"All right then," Zach grunted wearily. "If it wasn't you, and it wasn't Father, who did it? Who put that damn book in your room?"
Malachi leaned over him so that Zach could smell his familiar scent. In a low voice, almost a whisper, he replied, "I think you already know the answer."
"No. I don't," Zach stammered, taking a step backward. The answer could not have been further from his reach.
"Come on, now," Malachi coaxed. "Use that strong head of yours. Between the time I left and the time of your interview, how many people entered the house?"
"Father, Mother, Federico," Zach listed. After a moment's pause he added, "And all the staff. That's it. What are you getting at? Miss Caravich isn't that clever."
"No one…I don't know…oh." He remembered. The night after his visit to the Pier, his father had brought company over. Three colleagues. There was the big goofy one, the short bald one, and… "Derek Sintari!" Zach exclaimed.
"Exactly," Malachi praised him. "You know, with four months to think on it, I'm surprised the answer didn't hit you until…"
"I'm going to kill him," Zach blurted before he could think twice.
"What's gotten into you, Zach?" his elder brother scolded with feigned surprise.
"No," Zach replied, staring directly into Malachi's turquoise eyes, which had that ethereal look again. "The real question is what's gotten into you."
Malachi chuckled. "You sure have gotten spunkier since I left you that night. I like it."
"This is serious, Mal!"
"Oh, it's very serious, Zach. You don't need to tell me."
Zach wanted to punch him. The feeling was hardly new, he remembered. From their earliest days at Tulano, the Prince of Justice had tormented his brother in this way, even after they had made their pact of friendship. Malachi was simply pulling one of his old tricks, Zach told himself. Nothing had changed. Nothing.
And yet he had never felt this angry at his brother before. Not even the day of the Ceremony, just before leaving the mansion, when Malachi had revealed Zach's fears for the last time.
"Mal, we don't have much time," Zach cautioned. He took several deep breaths to suppress his humility. "No more screwing around in my head. Just answer my questions."
"Screwing around," he repeated with a smile. "So that's what you're calling it now."
"Let's just move on," Zach declared, ignoring his brother's jibe. "How about all the other stuff you were keeping from me? Like Halfield's plan. Like how the last fifty years have been one big fat lie."
"Where do you get these ideas?" Malachi taunted.
"Please, Mal," Zach groaned.
"I'm serious," Malachi snickered, pacing in a slow circle around his brother. "The ideas aren't yours. Someone put them there. When did you stop trusting me, Zach?"
"I stopped trusting you when you refused to save me," Zach declared with cold resolution. "When you sold my life away to Marcus Halfield."
Malachi dismissed the accusation with another laugh, but Zach thought he detected a flash of fear in those impermeable eyes. "You're forgetting who's the Prince of Justice," Malachi drawled, "and who's the traitor. Everyone trusts me, Zach. You've got to understand that."
"I do," Zach agreed, controlling his breathing. "But I also understand that we had a deal. When I was nine, you told me you wouldn't lie to me as long as I didn't get pissed about you doing your thing. Remember?"
"Of course," said Malachi with a gentle smile. "The deal was that I wouldn't spill your secrets. I never promised to share everything with you. That would be downright impossible."
"Okay," replied Zach, throwing his hands forward in defense. "My bad. You were right." After a pause, he went on, raising his voice so that surely the guards in the other compartment could hear. "But still," he cried, "How could lie about Halfield's biggest, darkest, secret, the one he's been keeping from half the planet?"
The room fell silent. The train took another sharp turn as it neared its destination. The whir of the engine had begun to wind down. Soon the serpentine vessel would coil its way into a full stop. Then the doors would open, and Zach's life would be over.
Zach expected his brother to laugh again. He expected apologies. Excuses. Snide, condescending remarks. Even threats. He braced himself for it all. But Zach never could have foreseen the simple question his brother asked next.
Zach nearly choked on his own gasp. The two of them stood there silently for a moment, each transfixed by the other's paralyzed stupor. At last, Zach cautiously raised a finger to his head and tapped his skull three times, indicating where his brother might find the answer.
"So you believe it too," Malachi sighed after an interminable pause.
Zach's disbelief only multiplied as he continued to stare into his brother's pupils. "And you don't?" he finally stammered.
"Of course not, Zach," he replied calmly. "You expect me to say the whole war has been some sort of hoax they dreamed up so they could strike it rich?" Malachi rubbed his eyes and shook his head. "You're getting crazier every day."
"Just listen to me, Mal," Zach pleaded as the train dropped in altitude. "Not my words. My thoughts. The words in my head. Surely you can see that I'm telling the truth."
"Only the truth as you see it," he reasoned. "Where did you hear this so-called truth? From a deranged old lizard you found at the Fang?"
"Exactly!" cried Zach. "Rusakore's been put away. The war's over. We can go home now."
But Malachi only shook his head and sighed deeply. Through the tiny window, Zach could see that the front of the train had just entered the station. Within seconds the guards would barge in, and all his effort would be for nothing.
Sensing his brother's desperation, Malachi had already bent down to open the door to the narrow ventilation tunnel.
"Just a second, Mal," Zach urged as steam hissed out from the heating shaft below. "Before I go, I need to ask you something."
"The answer is yes. I promise," Malachi gloated.
"You could've just waited," Zach snorted. Who was his brother trying to impress?
"No. There's no time."
"So you promise?" Zach asked wearily, lowering himself down into the shaft.
"I promise you'll get out of here alive."
Zach froze halfway down the ladder. Warm, moist air billowed up into the room, making Malachi appear ghostly. Through the fog, those two turquoise eyes peered down at him with ferocious intensity. "That wasn't all," Zach murmured.
"Zach, you can't ask me to turn against Halfield."
"Then don't," Zach whispered fervently. "Just find out whatever you can." His cheeks burned from the heat of the steam as the train slid to a halt. No more time.
Kneeling down to seal the hatch, Malachi whispered one last question. "Why should I?"
As Malachi's finger hovered over the button, an electronic voice rang out across the compartment. "Malachi Lemont," it said. "You have reached your destination. Please proceed to the nearest exit."
And the grate slid shut with a metallic click, separating Zach from the person he most needed, the person he most feared. Through the metal bars, he whispered an answer.
"Because you're the only one who can."
And without a word, Malachi turned away.
After another treacherous crawl, Zach burst through the tiny opening into Hendricks's private compartment, where he found the Taser-happy agent staring down at him from beneath her opaque helmet.
"So what did you learn?" she asked flatly.
"I'd rather not talk about it," Zach groaned, pulling himself up and out of the manhole with considerable effort.
"A little man-to-man talk? Fair enough," she scoffed. Her snide tone made him want to punch her. He probably would have, had it not been for that shiny metal stick on her belt.
":Look, I'll tell you later, okay," he muttered, carefully sliding the grate back into place. He took a seat beside her and used his shirt to mop the sweat off his brow. Deciding to change the subject, he mused, "Hard to believe it's still twenty below out there."
"And yet the snow still falls," she replied, her eyes shifting upward toward the window, where powdery flakes splattered and melted against the reinforced glass. The train didn't start moving again for several minutes, presumably waiting for Malachi and his company to disembark. As their compartment lurched into motion, he could almost feel his brother disappearing, perhaps never to see him again.
"Nothing at all you'd like to tell me before I turn you back in?" she asked matter-of-factly, snapping him back to the present moment.
Zach froze. "You're gonna turn me in?" he blurted, feeling a sudden pressure close in on his chest. "Can't I trust anyone here?"
Hendricks chuckled darkly. "Trust? That's a word an agent doesn't hear too often. You really thought I was going to get you off after all you know?"
Zach gave her a blank stare that seemed to say, "Well, yeah."
She shook her head slowly. Zach wondered, not for the first time, what kind of face lay behind that unflinching mask. "Don't worry," she murmured slyly. "They'll be good to you."
"Will they?" Zach countered. "'Cause the last four months haven't been much of a vacation."
"I can imagine," replied the faceless agent. Zach fought to suppress the rage welling up in his abdomen.
"So what was the point of all this?" cried Zach as he paced the rumbling train car. "If you really are trying to help me, why rescue me so you can just throw me back into Halfield's hands?"
She raised a finger to her mouthpiece, motioning for him to lower his voice. After he had taken a seat, she began her response. "Because I thought you could help us, Zach," she murmured. "I guess I was wrong."
"So that's what it's about, huh?" Zach whispered fiercely. "You couldn't care less my brother and me. You just wanted me to spy on him."
"Oh, forgive me," she mocked. "Any other shocking realizations?"
Zach shook his head. He listened to the pounding of the train engine and the faint whistling of the blizzard outside. After a long pause, he mumbled, "Just get me back home."
Hendricks gave an exaggerated sigh. "That's not an option right now, Zach," she chided. "Your parents couldn't give up their precious palace. Looks like they chose home," she added forcefully, "Over you."
"No!" Zach blurted. "My mother would never do that. She must have meant something else!"
The agent inhaled deeply. "Zach, someday you're going to have to come to terms with a single, unchangeable, fact." She paused, turning toward the window to study the storm. Finally, in an icy drawl, she uttered the terse statement. "Nobody owes you anything."
"But you're an agent," Zach stammered, ignoring her aphorism. "You got me onto this train, so can't you get me out of here? I don't care if you have to…pack me into a box and smuggle me back to Tulano. Surely you have a better plan!"
"There's only one plan, Zach," she replied without flinching. "The White Fang is your home now. If you want to see the age of fifteen, just do as I say."
"And what if you don't turn me in?" he pleaded, still unwilling to accept his fate.
"Then you'll die," she snapped. "Not just that, but you'll get us all killed. Remember Zach, I'm an agent, but you're not."
"I know," he murmured.
"So?" she continued. "Not much of a choice, is it?"
Zach waited. Outside, the tempest had picked up. The endless staccato of falling snow jarred the train as it rumbled through the city's skyways. A crystalline sheet of ice now covered the narrow windows. Beyond it, only the faintest glimmer of light shone through. Night was falling on Deremorn.
"I've still got a choice," he declared abruptly. The agent gave an almost imperceptible nod, barely a twitch of her helmet.
"We'll see about that," she replied.