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Page 18


The conversation Hickory was having with Dad about the Conclave and the Colonial Union was really interesting, right up until the point where Hickory said it and Dickory were planning to kill my parents. Then, well. I sort of lost it.

To be fair, it had been a really long day.

I had said good night to Enzo, dragged my butt home, and could barely think straight enough to hide the stone knife in my dresser and fend off Babar's lick attack on my face before I collapsed onto my cot and passed out without even bothering to get all the way undressed. At some point after I lay down, Jane came home from the medical bay, kissed me on the forehead and slipped off my boots, but I barely remember that other than murmuring something to her about how happy I was she was better. At least, that's what I was saying inside my head; I don't know if my mouth formed the actual words. I think it did. I was very tired at the time.

Not too much after that, though, Dad came in and gently nudged me awake. "Come on, hon," he said. "I need you to do something for me."

"I'll do it in the morning," I mumbled. "I swear."

"No, sweetheart," he said. "I need you to do it now." The tone of his voice, gentle but insistent, told me he really did need me to get up. I did, but with enough grumbling to maintain my honor. We went to the living room of our bungalow; Dad steered me to the couch, which I sat on and tried to maintain a semiconscious state that would allow me to go back to sleep when we were done with whatever it was we were doing. Dad sat down at his desk; Mom stood next to him. I smiled sleepily at her but she seemed not to notice. Between me and my parents were Hickory and Dickory.

Dad spoke to Hickory. "Can you two lie?" he asked it.

"We have not yet lied to you," Hickory said. Which even in my sleepy state I recognized as not being an actual answer to the question that was asked. Dad and Hickory bantered back and forth a little about what being able to lie brings to a conversation (in my opinion, mostly the ability to not have to argue about stupid things it's just better to lie about, but no one asked me), and then Dad asked me to tell Hickory and Dickory to answer all his questions without any lies or evasions.

This finally woke me all the way up. "Why?" I asked. "What's going on?"

"Please do it," Dad said.

"All right," I said, and then turned to Hickory. "Hickory, please answer my dad without lying to him or evading his questions. All right?"

"As you wish, Zoe," Hickory said.

"Dickory too," I said.

"We will both answer truthfully," Hickory said.

"Thank you," Dad said, and then turned back to me. "You can go back to bed now, sweetie."

This annoyed me. I was a human being, not a truth serum. "I want to know what's going on," I said.

"It's not something you need to worry about," Dad said.

"You order me to have these two tell you the truth, and you want me to believe it's not something I need to worry about?" I asked. The sleep toxins were taking their time leaving my system, because even as I was saying this I realized it came out showing a little more attitude to my parents than was entirely warranted at the moment.

As if to confirm this, Jane straightened herself up a bit. "Zoe," she said.

I recalibrated. "Besides, if I leave there's no guarantee they won't lie to you," I said, trying to sound a bit more reasonable. "They're emotionally equipped to lie to you, because they don't care about disappointing you. But they don't want to disappoint me." I didn't know if this was actually true or not. But I was guessing it was.

Dad turned to Hickory. "Is this true?"

"We would lie to you if we felt it was necessary," Hickory said. "We would not lie to Zoe."

There was a really interesting question here of whether Hickory was saying this because it was actually true, or whether it was saying it in order to back me up on what I said, and if the latter, what the actual truth value of the statement was. If I were more awake, I think I would have thought about it more at the time. But as it was, I just nodded and said, "There you go," to my dad.

"Breathe a word of this to anyone and you're spending the next year in the horse stall," Dad said.

"My lips are sealed," I said, and almost made a lip-locking motion, but thought better of it at the last second.

And a good thing, too, because suddenly Jane came up and loomed over me, bearing her I am as serious as death expression. "No," she said. "I need you to understand that what you're hearing here you absolutely cannot share with anyone else. Not Gretchen. Not any of your other friends. Not anyone. It's not a game and it's not a fun secret. This is dead serious business, Zoe. If you're not ready to accept that, you need to leave this room right now. I'll take my chances with Hickory and Dickory lying to us, but not you. So do you understand that when we tell you not to share this with anyone, that you cannot share it with anyone else? Yes or no."

Several thoughts entered my mind at that moment.

The first is that it was times like this when I had the smallest inkling of how terrifying Jane must have been as a soldier. She was the best mom a girl could ever have, make no mistake about it, but when she got like this, she was as hard and cold and direct as any person could be. She was, to use a word, intimidating. And this was just with words. I tried to imagine her stalking across a battlefield with the same expression on her face she had now, and standard-issue Defense Forces rifle. I think I actually felt at least three of my internal organs contract at the thought.

The second is I wondered what she would think of my ability to keep a secret if she had known what I had just done with my evening.

The third was maybe she did, and that was what this was about.

I felt several other of my internal organs contract at that thought.

Jane was still looking at me, cold like stone, waiting for my answer.

"Yes," I said. "I understand, Jane. Not a word."

"Thank you, Zoe," Jane said. Then she bent down and kissed the top of my head. Just like that, she was my mom again. Which in its way made her even more terrifying, if you ask me.

That settled, Dad started asking Hickory about the Conclave and what it and Dickory knew about that group. Since we had made the jump to Roanoke, we had been waiting for the Conclave to find us, and when they found us, to destroy us, like they had destroyed the Whaid colony in the video the Colonial Union had given us. Dad wanted to know if what Hickory knew about the Conclave was different than what we knew.

Hickory said yes, basically. They knew quite a bit about the Conclave, based on the Obin government's own files on them - and that their own files, contrary to what we had been told by the Colonial Union, showed that when it came to colonies, the Conclave much preferred to evacuate the colonies they confronted, rather than destroying them.

Dad asked Hickory why, if they had different information, they had not shared it earlier. Hickory said because they had been ordered not to by their government; neither Hickory nor Dickory would have lied about having the information if Dad had asked them, but he had never asked them about it before. I think this struck Dad as a bit weaselly on the part of Hickory and Dickory, but he let it go.

Dad asked Hickory if it'd seen the video the Colonial Union had given us, of the Conclave destroying the Whaid colony. Hickory said that it and Dickory had their own version. Dad asked if their version was different; Hickory said it was - it was longer and showed General Gau, who had ordered the destruction of the Whaid colony, trying to convince the Whaidi colony leader to let the Conclave evacuate the colonists, only to have the Whaid refuse to leave before the destruction of their colony. Hickory said that other times, on other colony worlds, colonists did ask to be evacuated, and the Conclave carried them off the planet, and sent them back to their homeworlds or allowed them to join the Conclave as citizens.

Jane asked for numbers. Hickory said they knew of seventeen colony removals by the Conclave. Ten of those had the Conclave returning colonists to their former homes. Four of those had the colonists joining the Conclave. Only three involved the destruction of the colonies, after the colonists refused to move. The Conclave was dead serious about not allowing anyone else to start new colonies, but - unlike what we were told by the Colonial Union - didn't insist on killing everyone on those new colonies to make the point.

This was fascinating stuff - and disturbing. Because if what Hickory was saying was true - and it was, because Hickory would not lie to me, or to my parents against my will - then it meant that either the Colonial Union had been wildly wrong about the Conclave, and its leader General Gau, or that the CU had lied to us when it told us what would happen if the Conclave found us. The first of these was certainly possible, I suppose; the Colonial Union was in a state of active hostility with almost every other alien race that we knew about, which I would guess would make intelligence gathering harder than it might be if we had more friends. But it was really more likely that the second of these was the truth: Our government lied to us.

But if the Colonial Union lied to us, why did it do it? What did it get from lying to us, punting us to who knows where in the universe, and making us live in fear of being discovered - and putting all of us in danger?

What was our own government up to?

And what would the Conclave really do to us if it found us?

This was such an interesting thing to think about that I almost missed the part where Hickory explained the reason why it and Dickory actually had detailed files about the Conclave's other colony removals: in order to convince Mom and Dad, should the Conclave come knocking, to surrender our colony rather than to let it be destroyed. And why would they want to convince Mom and Dad of this?

"Because of Zoe?" Dad asked Hickory.

"Yes," Hickory said.

"Wow," I said. This was news.

"Quiet, sweetheart," Dad said, and then gave his attention back to Hickory. "What would happen if Jane and I chose not to surrender the colony?" he asked.

"We would prefer not to say," Hickory said.

"Don't evade," Dad said. "Answer the question."

I caught Hickory giving me a quick look before it answered. "We would kill you and Lieutenant Sagan," Hickory said. "You and any other colony leader who would authorize the destruction of the colony."

Dad said something to this and Hickory said something back, but I missed most of it because my brain was trying to process what I had just heard, and it was absolutely and completely utterly failing. I knew I was important to the Obin. I had always known it abstractly, and then Hickory and Dickory had pounded the point into me months ago, when they had attacked me and showed me what it felt to be hunted, and showed me why I had to learn to defend myself. But in no formulation of my importance was even the conception that I was so important to the Obin that if it came to it, they would kill my parents to save me.

I didn't even know how to think about something like that. Didn't know how to feel about it. The idea kept trying to hook into my brain, and it just wasn't working. It was like having an out of body experience. I floated up over the conversation, and listened to Jane interject herself into the discussion, asking Hickory if even after admitting this as their plan, if it and Dickory would still kill her and John. Kill my mom and dad.

"If you choose to surrender the colony, yes," Hickory said.

I actually felt a snap as I reeled myself back into my head, and I'm happy to say that I quite suddenly knew exactly how to feel about all of this: absolutely enraged.

"Don't you dare," I said, and I flung out the words. "Under no circumstances will you do that." I was surprised to find myself standing when I said it; I didn't remember getting up. I was shaking so hard with anger I wasn't sure how I was still standing.

Hickory and Dickory both flinched at my anger, and trembled. "This one thing we must refuse you," Hickory said. "You are too important. To us. To all Obin."

To all Obin.

If I could have spat, I would.

Here it was again. All of my life, bounded by the Obin. Bounded not in who I was, but what I was. By what I meant to them. There was nothing about my own life that mattered in this, except what entertainment I could give them as billions of Obin played the records of my life like it was a funny show. If any other girl had been Charles Boutin's daughter, they would have happily watched her life instead. If any other girl's adopted parents had gotten in the way of the Obin's plan for her, they would have slaughtered them, too. Who I was meant nothing. The only thing that mattered was that I just happened to have been one man's daughter. A man who the Obin had thought could give them something. A man whose daughter's life they had bargained with to get that thing. A man who ended up dying because of the work he'd done for them. And now they wanted more sacrifices.

So I let Hickory and Dickory know how I felt. "I've already lost one parent because of the Obin," I said, and loaded everything I could into that last word. All my anger and disgust and horror and rage, at the idea they should so casually decide to take from me two people who had only ever shown me love and affection and honor, and flick them aside like they were nothing more than an inconvenience.

I hated Hickory and Dickory that minute. Hated them in that way that comes only when someone you love takes that love and betrays it, completely and totally. Hated them because they would betray me because they believe they loved me.

I hated them.

"Everybody calm down," John said. "No one is killing anyone. All right? This is a nonissue. Zoe, Hickory and Dickory aren't going to kill us because we're not going to let the colony be destroyed. Simple as that. And there is no way I would let anything happen to you, Zoe. Hickory and Dickory and I all agree that you are too important for that."

I opened my mouth to say something to that and just started sobbing instead. I felt like I'd gone numb from the legs; suddenly Jane was there, holding me and leading me back to the couch. I sobbed on her like I did so many years ago outside that toy store, trying to sort out everything I was thinking.

I heard Dad make Hickory and Dickory swear to protect me, always, under all circumstances. They swore. I felt like I didn't want their help or protection ever again. I knew it would pass. Even now I knew it was because of the moment that I felt this way. It didn't change the fact that I still felt it. I was going to have to live with it from now on.

Dad talked with Hickory more about the Conclave and asked to see the Obin's files on the other colony removals. Hickory said they would need to go to the information center to do it. Even though it was now so late it was almost morning, Dad wanted to do it right then. He gave me a kiss and headed out the door with the Obin; Jane held back a second.

"Are you going to be okay?" she asked me.

"I'm having a really intense day, Mom," I said. "I think I want it to be over."

"I'm sorry you had to hear what Hickory said," Jane said. "I don't think there would have been any good way to handle it."

I sniffled out a small grin. "You seem to have taken it well," I said. "If someone was telling me they had plans to kill me, I don't think I would have taken it anywhere as calmly."

"Let's just say I wasn't entirely surprised to hear Hickory say that," Jane said. I looked up at her, surprised. "You're a treaty condition, remember," she said. "And you are the Obin's main experience of what it's like to live."

"They all live," I said.

"No," Jane said. "They exist. Even with their consciousness implants they hardly know what to do with themselves, Zoe. It's all too new to them. Their race has no experience with it. They don't just watch you because you entertain them. They watch you because you're teaching them how to be. You're teaching them how to live."

"I've never thought about it that way," I said.

"I know you haven't," Jane said. "You don't have to. Living comes naturally to you. More naturally than to some of the rest of us."

"It's been a year since any of them have seen me," I said. "Any of them but Hickory and Dickory. If I've been teaching them how to live, I wonder what they've been doing for the last year."

"They've been missing you," Mom said, and kissed the top of my head again. "And now you know why they'll do anything to have you back. And to keep you safe."

I didn't have a good answer to that. Mom gave me one last quick hug and headed to the door to join Dad and the Obin. "I don't know how long this is going to take us," she said. "Try going to bed again."

"I'm too worked up to get back to sleep," I said.

"If you get some sleep you'll probably be less worked up when you wake up," Jane said.

"Trust me, Mom," I said. "It's going to take something pretty big to get me over being worked up about all of this."

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