Zee took a seat on the couch. Michaels ignored his earlier greeting and continued to be unresponsive as he stood, staring out the window. Zee wasn’t sure what to do. He decided to not say anything, to just wait until the Senator was ready to talk. After all, it was he who called for this meeting. Zee thought it only appropriate to let him speak first.
Several more minutes passed before Michaels finally spoke. Still staring out the window, “Do you think me to be an evil man Zee?”
“Sir?” Zee was caught by surprise and didn’t quite hear.
Michaels turned. “Do you think me to be an evil man? You know, for getting involved with Santora?”
Again there was silence as the Senator now waited for Zee to speak. “Santora,” Zee thought. Looking up at Michaels, Zee was now asking questions, “Is he the one who was on the ship that day?”
“Yes Zee, on the ship. He came through that, that thing, portal, whatever you call it. I don’t know. And up till that moment, I never suspected him to be the way he was.” Michaels began to cry.
His voice got louder. “He scared me that day, killing those innocent children. I carry it to bed with me every night.” He was now wiping his eyes, “I see their faces and I realize how many of them died because of me.”
“Senator, I don’t think I would say you were evil, but I do have to call into question your judgment. Why would you turn to an alien race for help to become Premier of Minas Terra? Some people would say that’s treason. And considering it’s led us to this moment; it seems to me to be a pretty serious issue.”
The Senator turned back to the window.
Zee continued. “With all due respect sir, what do you care about what an academy student thinks anyway?” Zee was uncomfortable speaking and wanted to get Michaels talking.
Michaels turned and moved towards the couch. He took a seat on a chair facing Zee.
“I know I’ve made mistakes and of course when looking back in hind’s site, things are always much clearer. I should never have gotten involved with these people and if there was anything I could do, anything, to go back, I would.”
Zee didn’t see how this conversation applied to him and was anxious for the Senator to get to the point. “Why am I here? What is it you want with me?”
The Senator looked up and fixed his gaze intently on Zee. “He has access to my family, to my home. I had no choice but to listen to him. I saw what he did on that shuttle and I cannot let him do it to my wife or daughters.”
Again there was an awkward silence. When the Senator did speak, it was not directly at Zee but more in a manner of deep contemplation. “That poor boy, that followed me in,” He began again to cry.
“Boy who followed you in?” Zee was thinking out loud. “You mean Edwards, from the shuttle?”
“Zee, he tortured him, for a simple name. It was hideous.” Michaels was reliving it in his mind. “It was a horrible relief to know the boy was finally dead.”
“Edwards is dead.” Zee thought. He suspected this was the case anyway, but now it was confirmed.
Michaels was back at the window, staring blankly outside.
“What name would Santora be looking for?” Zee broke the renewed silence.
The Senator’s head dropped and Zee could barely hear his answer, but he did hear.
“He wanted your name Zee. You killed his men on the shuttle. He wanted to know who did it.”
Michaels was crying harder now. “I’m so sorry boy, I’m so sorry.”
“For what Senator?” Zee’s voice was now louder and agitated. “What are you sorry for?”
Michaels turned to Zee. “I can’t handle the guilt of what I’ve done. Please, forgive me. I was forced to do it, or my family would be killed.”
Zee was on his feet now. “What did you do Senator?”
“Zee, he has your name!” The Senator sat at a desk and buried his head in his hands. For several minutes he just cried.
Zee sat back down on the couch wondering what the implications of this might be. Was he in danger? What about his family?
The Senator composed himself and continued, “The boy, Edwards, finally gave it up. It took a while. He was brave, but in the end he couldn’t hold out before death took him. I only wish I could have been braver too, but the thought of him hurting my family was too much to bear.”
Zee sat in silence staring at Michaels. In between sobs and sniffles, blowing his nose from time to time, the confession the Senator was trying to make finally surfaced.
“He made me find you Zee, so he could find you.”
“But how would he get to me? He’s not here on Minas Terra right?” Zee was confused.
“No he’s not here, but he can be, just like that.” Michaels snapped his fingers in the air. “It was a painting Zee. He gave me a painting, by an artist called Mirawey, and I had it delivered to your house. He forced me to do it son. You have to believe me. My daughters, my wife; I can’t let him hurt them.”
“But how?” Zee yelled. “It’s a painting!”
“The portal Zee, think, the Portal. You know how it works. With that painting there, he has a direct link into your house.”
Zee’s mind flashed back to the shuttle, when he waved the picture of his family room into the portal’s sensors. How would that work with a painting? Zee didn’t know. It was a Mirawey though. That’s what his mom told him too.
He remembered his dream on the shuttle. Mr. Carr had a painting.
“Mom!” Zee jumped to his feet. His hand held comm. unit was out as he frantically dialed home. He accidentally entered the wrong number and had to start over. This time he got the number right. It rang endlessly. He hung up and dialed the number again, but still no answer.
Zee exited the Senate building much faster than he had entered. Now he was in his transport racing towards home. He thought for a moment of calling for help but it would take too long to stop and make the call and every second mattered. He kept going. It wouldn’t take him long anyways to get there.
Ironically, seconds later, he was receiving a call. He activated it.
“Who is this?” Zee was frantic.
“Zee! It’s me, Brimley.”
“Brimley, I think mom’s in trouble. Michaels had a painting delivered to our house. To trap me because I killed Santora’s men on the shuttle.”
“Slow down Zee. Who’s Santora? Wait, don’t tell me yet. We’ll get to that. I’m calling you about the painting. I helped her hang it this morning and something about it bothered me. I realized later it was the forest. Zee, it was the forest you and I were in when we last saw your father!”
“Brimley, they’re using the painting to shift. I don’t know how, but it’s connected. I think that painting is a portal into our house!”
“Don’t go there Zee. Stay put while I call for help. We’ll get reinforcements immediately.” Brimley was starting to feel panicked.
“I can’t wait. I’m just about there.”
Moments later, Zee pulled into the driveway. From the outside, the house seemed normal. There were no signs of distress, nothing out of order. It made him relax just a little.
“Mom?” Zee yelled as he entered the side door by the kitchen. His first sign of trouble was the kitchen sink faucet running. The drain was stopped and water spilling onto the floor. “Mom!” he yelled again as he turned off the water.
“The atrium.” Zee mumbled. He remembered she said they hung it there.
One look at the painting and Zee stood stunned. Brimley was right. It was the forest they had last seen his dad in. But there was a more troubling sight. The painting was not quite how his mother had described it. There was a horse drawn cart, but this one had a cage on it and inside the cage was the unmistakable figure of his mother. Zee started to cry.
“It’s pretty sad to see your mother being hauled away in a cage like that.” Zee jumped, not expecting someone else was in the house. “Look at her, like an animal being hauled away.”
The presence of evil was familiar. He felt the same feeling on the shuttle that day.
“Santora” Zee said.
“Ah, so you know my name. You must have been talking with Senator Michaels.”
Zee entered the living room to find the General sitting in his dad’s chair. He took a seat on the sofa across from him.
“If you harm my mother in any way I’ll“, Zee started to speak but was cut off.
“Or you’ll what? Kill me? Like you killed my men that day? When you think about it, it’s very impressive a mere child such as yourself could do what you did. If it wasn’t for it being my men, I might be more amused.”
“Yeah, well, you started it, so get over it.” Zee was indignant.
Santora sat there looking at Zee, studying him. “Look at you.” He said. “You’re a child in my eyes, learning about how to make war. I have been a warrior since longer than you’ve lived. I don’t think you’ll kill me. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you’re sincere, but just greatly mistaken or over confident, one of the two.”
There was a pause, the General looking down at something he held. He continued.
“Since we came here earlier and had the most pleasant opportunity to meet your mother, I have found out some very interesting things. I think you might even be impressed to know what I now know.”
Santora was holding a picture in his hands. Zee couldn’t see it but by the look of the frame, he knew exactly which one it was.
Santora noticed Zee’s attention on the picture and turned it so he could see. “Is that your father?”
Zee didn’t answer.
“Let me tell you a story. You like stories, don’t you?” Santora actually sounded father like. It made Zee feel sick inside.
“There once was a Shepard who had a herd. And the herd obeyed the Shepard in everything he said. Do you know why they obeyed Zee?” Santora didn’t wait for the answer.
“They obeyed, because they knew there would be more to be afraid of from the Shepard, than from any wolf that might come along if they didn’t do exactly as he said. The Shepard ruled his flocks which he had stolen, from the other Shepards he’d killed.
But then, one day out of nowhere, a fox appeared. And no matter how hard the Shepard tried to catch the fox, it would elude him. And every time it showed up, another lamb would stop fearing the Shepard and realize how much better it was to be with the fox.
The Shepard was very angry about this. But then, one day, fortune struck unexpectedly. He finally found out the fox, had come from a very distant field, one the Shepard had visited long before. The fox had crawled into his cart when the Shepard wasn’t looking. How do you suppose he found out? About the fox I mean, and where he came from?”
The General began to smile and held up the picture. He was pointing to Zee’s dad. “He simply looked at a photograph and realized, he was in he home of the fox that had tormented him all these years. And the Shepard was happy, because now, he had the bait needed to finally catch this menacing pest.”
Zee jumped to his feet. “You know my dad and he’s alive?”
“Oh he’s alive Zee”, Santora was now sounding a bit agitated. “But not for long, because now I have his wife.” He turned the picture again towards Zee and pointed to Lilly. “And soon, I’ll have his daughter too and later when you join us, his whole family. He’ll have no choice but to come out of hiding and give himself up.”
“What makes you think I’ll be joining you?” Zee snapped back.
“If you don’t, I’ll kill them. But not until I have my way with them of course, especially this young one here. She’s cute.”
Santora stood. “I know you’ve been assigned to find the portal that crashed in the desert of Tridia. I have people in places. Do as I say and you may well see your family alive again, except your father of course. He must die. But your mother and sister needn’t.”
“Find that portal and activate it. You come on through. Leave it active mind you, because then you can leave with your living family members. Cross me and all of you dies a slow, tortured death. Do you understand?”
Santora didn’t wait for Zee’s answer. He stood and moved to the atrium. By now Zee could hear Brimley’s vehicle and others arriving to the house. The General pulled something from his pocket and squeezed it.
“Don’t let me down boy.” Santora smiled. “Don’t let your mom or lovely sister down.” He touched the painting and was gone.
Brimley kicked open the door and entered with weapon raised. Other fleet soldiers following behind. He found Zee standing in the atrium. “Are you okay Zee? Where’s your mother?”
Zee nodded to the painting. Brimley lowered his weapon and looked. “Is that her, in the cage? This isn’t the picture I helped hang.”
“Yes”, Zee confirmed. “And that’s General Santora, the one who’s responsible for all the attacks against us by these shifters. I think I understand it all now.” Santora was in the painting and stood by the cart holding the family picture he had taken from the fireplace mantle.
Brimley was shaking. “Michaels killed himself after you left the Senate building.”
A chill crawled up Zee’s spine. He was just with the Senator, talking with him. “He killed himself, how?”
“He pulled a fire arm from one of the guards and turned it on himself.” Brimley looked at the painting. “And then this?”
“Step by step Brimley.” Zee said. “I found the answer I was looking for.”
Chapter Seventeen | Episode Three: Chapter Nineteen