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Guardian of the Ceremony

A Serial by Tim Connolly

In the previous chapter, used his spare talisman to infiltrate the Minions' camp. Posing as an amnesiac, it wasn't long before they found the bug that he was wearing.

Chapter 50: All the Wrong Answers

"It's a good thing we found this soon enough," I'kali said as he fondled the small communicator. "Otherwise, who knows what kind of things they would've heard about us."

Hogan watched meekly as I'kali bent down and placed the communicator on the floor, then began to raise his left foot. "Wait!" he interjected. "I don't think you should do that."

A quizzical look came upon I'kali's face. "Why not?"

"I remember one of them saying something about it… I think it was something like, 'If he finds the bug, we attack.' If you break it, they'll know we're on to them."

"Nonsense," I'kali replied. "Chances are they're going to attack anyway. There's no reason to leave this thing around in a place like this." With that, I'kali's foot dropped swiftly onto the communicator. Hogan heard a sickening crunch from underneath the captain's boot. "Don't worry, O'gane. Even if they do attack, we're more than capable of defending ourselves."

Hogan nodded nervously. "I sure hope so."

"Now then. I imagine you must be hungry after what you've had to go through. Come on, I'll take you to the commissary."

"I'd appreciate that," Hogan responded. "Thank you, sir."

"And stop calling me 'sir'," I'kali continued. "That's a Du'imite word. You can just call me by my real name."

"Sorry, si-… I mean, I'kali."

I'kali replied with a faint smile.

As they walked out of the infirmary, I'kali walked alongside the new patient. "So, tell me, O'gane - what did you do over in Hu'teg? I'd imagine you worked as a laborer, correct?"

"Yes, that's right," Hogan answered. Before he had left, Commander A'ris had given Hogan some general information he was to give anyone on the Minions' side if asked - hometown, occupation, and some other small statistics. "I'm a steel worker up there."

"Very good. Any children?"

"Yeah, I have a son."

"Really?" I'kali looked genuinely intrigued. "What's his name?"

"Lu… I mean, I'luke. He's about three years old."

I'kali nodded at the answer. "What about a companion?"

"You mean a wife?" Hogan asked.

"No, a companion. Don't tell me you've lived there your entire life without a companion."

Hogan tried his best to hide his confusion. They had never told him about a separate companion. "Sorry. My memory's still fuzzy on some things."

"I see. OK, tell me about your wife, then."

"Well, actually, she's not my wife yet. I mean, we've had a child together, but we haven't actually gotten married yet. I will soon, though."

They soon arrived at the commissary. Hogan quickly got in line behind I'kali, allowing him to learn what the table manners were for this race. Following closely behind the captain, Hogan put on his tray the same things that I'kali was taking, then followed him to an empty table.

I'kali took his cup - filled with a dark liquid that smelled vaguely like coffee - and held it up. "Before we eat, I think we ought to have a toast." I'kali looked right at Hogan, which made him feel even more awkward. "To the A'nakites."

"To the A'nakites…" Hogan pondered for a moment, then deduced that this must be the term that these beings call themselves rather than Minions. "Sure, I'll drink to that." He smiled, clinking his cup against I'kali's, and took a drink. It did indeed taste reminiscent of coffee, combined with a nutty flavor that reminded him of toasted almonds. He then took a second to watch how I'kali ate his food - using a fork-like utensil and one bare hand to tear the food into small pieces, then using the fork to eat them. Hogan quickly followed suit.

"I hope you don't feel uncomfortable with me asking you all of these personal questions," I'kali explained.

"Me? No, I'm all right with it. Although it does feel a little strange when someone asks you a simple question and you're having a hard time remembering the answer." For once, Hogan was being honest.

"It'll come back to you, don't worry. I just hope that we can figure out what exactly they did to you back there."

They finished their lunch, and I'kali led Hogan out of the cafeteria. "If you'll follow me," he instructed, "We'll go to the interrogation room. There are a few other things that I need to discuss with you."

Uh oh, Hogan thought. He's on to me. "Nothing bad, I hope?"

"Actually, O'gane, it isn't good news. But I'd rather not tell you this in private."

I'kali's answered did nothing to calm Hogan's nerves. But while he was tempted to bolt out of there, he knew that he had nowhere to go even if he did manage to escape the A'nakite base, so he simply complied with I'kali's directions.

As Hogan expected, the interrogation room was far from inviting. There only sat a wooden conference table with four chairs, a small window in the back of the room helping complement the meager amount of light provided by the lamp hanging overhead.

"Please, have a seat," I'kali instructed. Slowly, Hogan made his way towards one of the chairs and sat down. He ws nearing clutching the table in front of him, bracing for the words that I'kali was about to say.

"Do you know how long you've been gone, O'gane?" I'kali asked.

"I…I have no idea," Hogan replied, trying to keep up his cover as much as he could. "Why, is there something wrong?"

"I have a feeling that it was a considerable amount of time. You see… O'gane… if you're from Hu'teg, then I'm afraid I have some bad news."

"Bad news? Did something happen there?"

I'kali's voice had grown soft and consoling. "I'm afraid so. Two months ago, Du'imite forces invaded the town and overran it. They say that the number of casualties from the attack number in the thousands. I fear that your son and your fiancée are among those lost."

Hogan faked his surprise. "What??"

"I'm sorry, O'gane. Those spies that you said had captured you obviously did have plans on the town. You have my sincerest sympathies."

"No… it can't be…" Hogan squeezed out a few crocodile tears. "My son… my girlfriend… they can't be gone. They just can't!"

"It's all right, O'gane," I'kali said, resting his hand on Hogan's shoulder. "We're going to make sure that we put a stop to those monsters."

"Is there anything I can do?" Hogan asked, starting to probe for a chance to perform some real espionage.

"As a matter of fact, there is. Now, I don't want you to feel as if I'm forcing you into this, given the fact that you're here on this base, but if you're willing to enlist, I will see to it myself that your loved ones did not die in vain."

"It's all right," Hogan replied. "It doesn't look like I'll have much of a home to return to anyway."

"Very well. When we're done here, I'll take you to registration so we can get you set up. Since you were a steel laborer, I would imagine that you may be interested in our robotics division?"

"Robotics?" Hogan asked, curiously. "What would that involve?"

"We're working on a couple of projects that we think would really shift the balance of this war in our direction. It's all confidential, so I can't describe it in detail with you here. But they do need people to help construct prototypes. Would you be willing to that?"

It took a lot of effort for Hogan not to jump out of his chair to accept, especially after feigning sorrow just moments ago. "It would be a fitting tribute to them for me to put my skill to that sort of use. Thanks for this opporunity, I'kali."

"It's my pleasure, O'gane." I'kali gave Hogan a genuine smile. Hogan smiled back, relieved at the fact that I'kali seemed to have bought the act. "You can start tomorrow if you'd like."

"Tomorrow would be fine, thanks." Hogan got out of the chair and shook hands with the captain. "Anything else?"

"Yes, I do need to ask one more favor of you, if it's not too much trouble."

"No trouble at all," Hogan responded. "What is it?"

"If it's all right with you, could you drop the act and tell me who you really are?"

Hogan's stomach now felt like it had sunk to his ankles. "W-… What do you mean, drop the act?"

"Come on, does it look like I have the word 'idiot' tattooed on my forehead or something? This is the worst excuse for a spy I've ever seen. You come in from nowhere, and say the Du'imites were experimenting on you, but the doctors never found any evidence of experimentation. You had no idea what an A'nakite was, you've never heard of a life companion, you were staring at me the entire time during lunch to figure out how we eat, and the kicker - you give your son a girl's name. And of course, the moment I offer you a chance to work in some top-secret department, you're all over it. Fancy that."

Hogan couldn't speak. He could barely breathe.

"And one other thing. We came across something else while you were sleeping." I'kali reached into his suit pocket, and pulled out a long gold chain.

The talisman was hanging from the center of it.

I'kali dangled the talisman in front of Hogan's eyes. "Look familiar, Ki'rath?"

Next chapter: As Hogan awaits the consequences of his being caught, both he and I'kali find themselves in the middle of a Du'imite attack.

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