It was two days later and way too early in the morning when the call finally came in.
Sam twisted in the grip Kias had around his waist and reached for his communicator where it was buzzing noisily on the bedside table. The polite greeting he'd intended ended up being more incoherent mumble than words as he held the device to his ear.
"Good morning, Sam," the Marshal said, a hint of amusement in his voice. "Are you awake?"
"Mmm." Sam struggled to sit up, detaching a sleepy eyed and very much naked Kias from his torso. Sam was just as lacking in clothes and still a little sticky from their fun last night, which made talking to his superior more than a little awkward. "Yeah, sorry, sir. Awake now."
"The issue at hand has been thoroughly discussed with the council," the Marshal told him. "Though there was much division on the topic, in the end it was agreed that there was little to be lost in trialling the idea with a single individual."
Sam shot Kias a grin before realising that even if he had overheard the Marshal's side of the conversation, he wouldn't have understood a word of it. Still, Kias returned it with a tentative, sleepy one of his own.
"We have approval to return and collect Seba, then?" Sam asked.
When the Marshal spoke, Sam could hear the smile in his voice. "Go get your kid."
The moment the shuttle slipped through the other end of the portal and into Seba's world, alarms started going off and Sam's ring began zapping his finger insistently.
"Well, shit," Sam said, and began working on shutting the alarms off. Shit indeed. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.
"They're here?" Kias asked breathlessly, still coming down from the panic of going through the portal and not at all reassured by the sudden chaos. "We're too late?"
Sam silenced the last alarm and turned his attention to getting his ring to stop alerting him to things he was already well aware of. "They're here, but whether we're too late or not…" He shook his head. "I told him somewhere safe to go. He's a smart kid and I'm sure that'll work in his favour as much as it can, but mostly it's going to depend on whether he was lucky or not and how far along the attack is. Nobody survives these things, but some live longer than others."
Once everything was under control again, Sam brought up the direct transport controls. He selected the closest coordinates to the city and shot Kias an apologetic look. "Here we go."
Something very, very bad was happening, and Seba still had no idea what it actually was. People were dying, being killed by... well, Seba wasn't sure what they were. They were made of metal, moved as though they were alive, and shot fire. It was absurd.
At the first signs of anything strange, though, Seba had remembered Sam's words and ran to the tower near the shrines. He could hear screaming and chaos below, but he'd been up in the tower for a while and nothing had disturbed him yet. Would they go away once they were done? Once there was nobody left to slaughter?
Had Sam known this would happen? Seba was convinced he must have. His advice catered too neatly to the present situation for any other explanation to be particularly compelling. But if he had known, why had he just left Seba with nothing more than a tip for a good hiding spot? Seba had hoped Sam had cared about him a little more than that, but it seemed there was much more to Sam than he had realised.
What if Sam had had something to do with the whole thing? What if he had been the cause of it? Sam was certainly strange, and he had certainly been hiding things from Seba. What if all of this was his big secret?
It didn't seem fitting that a man who had gone out of his way to protect Seba from harm would have anything to do with the slaughter of thousands of people, but hadn't Kalem shown moments of kindness and moments of cruelty in equal measure? There was no rule dictating that a man could only be of purest good or purest evil. In fact, Seba had never encountered a person who was entirely one or the other.
There was a grating sound as something hit the side of the tower near the window Seba was crouching next to, which was quite odd considering how high up it was. Seba froze, then folded his limbs even closer in to hide himself. He didn't dare look out of the window.
A shadow was cast through the window and Seba was sure he was done for, but then he realised it was rather human shaped and he braved a peek. There was a person crouching on the crumbling stone window ledge. A second later, Seba realised that person was Sam.
"What's going on?" Seba demanded, and somehow managing to force more gusto into his voice than he felt.
"Come on," Sam said, and held a hand out for Seba.
Seba took a step back away from Sam. "What's happening? Did you do this? How did you get up here?"
Sam glanced behind him nervously, though he looked concerned only about the things killing people below and not at all by the possibility of falling off of the extremely unstable window ledge. Maybe he could fly. Compared to everything else that was happening, people who could fly really wasn't so very outrageous.
"Come with me and I promise I'll answer every one of your questions. I'll take you somewhere safe where you can learn a hundred languages and read thousands upon thousands of books in each of them. I'll take you somewhere where you can get an education, where you can be safe and cared for without fear of harm. If you stay here, you'll die. If you come with me, you'll finally be able to have the life you deserve."
Theoretically that was an easy choice, but... "You want me to jump out of a window?"
After one more anxious glance behind himself, Sam hopped down from the windowsill and into the tower. "Okay, I'll admit I haven't done much to earn your trust, but what would I possibly gain from hurting you? If I'd wanted to cause you harm, couldn't I just have not told you to come up here? I intend to save you, but it's going to be a lot more difficult and a lot more dangerous if you don't cooperate."
Seba did his best to steady his expression as he felt it beginning to waver. He was not going to cry. "What do you want me to do?"
"Like you said; jump out of the window. Or step out, or crawl out, whatever." Sam climbed back onto the sill and crouched because the window wasn't tall enough for him to stand. "Lend me a bit of trust. I promise it'll be worth it."
When Sam let himself tip backwards Seba took a quick step forward in an instinctive effort to stop him, but by the time Seba got close enough Sam was gone. Just gone. He had tipped fully backwards out of the window, but instead of then falling to his death he had vanished. Or maybe Seba had simply missed it. Seba snuck a peek over the edge of the window, but he couldn't see Sam's body lying broken on the ground below.
"Trust me," said Sam's voice from out of thin air, and Seba leapt back away from the window. He was going mad. Utterly insane. But... what if he wasn't? What if everything that seemed to be happening was happening, and Sam was the only one who could save him?
Seba cautiously approached the window and reached one arm out, feeling the air outside. He lowered his hand to feel the air beneath the window, and suddenly his hand connected with something. No matter how hard he looked he couldn't see anything, but beneath his hand he could feel cold, gently vibrating metal.
"See?" Sam's voice said from somewhere outside of the window. "You won't fall. Really, though, this is not at all a safe place to linger. We're lucky they haven't spotted you yet. Hurry up."
Like most people Seba was afraid of heights, so convincing himself to climb onto the windowsill was no small feat. He was well aware of what the creatures down below would do if they spotted him, well aware that if he fell they would be the least of his concern. Why did his body insist on making his legs feel so shaky when what he needed most right now was steadiness?
"Good," Sam said gently. "Shut your eyes. It'll help."
Seba did as Sam advised, and then mentally prepared himself to stick his foot out of the window and feel around for the invisible surface. Before he could move, though, hands grabbed hold of him and dragged him forcefully off of the window's ledge.
Seba screamed and prepared himself to fall to his death, but instead he thumped down hard against a now visible metal floor. He was in a dark, sparse room, and when he looked back at where he'd come from he saw the window he'd just been dragged out of through a metal door which had begun to slide shut.
"Sorry," Sam said as he bent down to help Seba up. "I got kind of impatient. This isn't really a safe place to dally in, you know."
Kias was there, sitting in one of the two seats in the room. He appeared to be strapped into it.
"Hello," he said to Seba, in Seba's language, and gave him an uncertain smile.
"Will you please tell me what is going on?" Seba asked Sam helplessly. "Where are we? What are those things out there?"
"Once we're safe, I promise," Sam said, then led Seba over to the second seat and pushed him into it. He was doing up the straps before Seba had time to protest. "This whole room's going to start shaking a lot in a minute. It'll be unpleasant, but trust me, it's going to be even less fun for me."
"What?" Seba asked. He'd given up on actually putting his queries into sentences. He had so many questions and so few answers. He might have had a curious mind, but he had limits. Limits that had been well and truly met the moment people had started dying.
Sam opened a compartment near the ceiling and pulled out a thick blanket. There was a surface in front of the seat Seba was sitting in that had lights of many different colours and with different symbols on them, and Sam walked over and tapped a few of them. Part of the wall in front of Seba lit up, and text written in Sam's language came up. Sam wrapped the blanket around himself, tapped one more thing, and then flung himself on the floor and curled up. The room began to shake.
Being unrestrained in a transporting shuttle was every bit as painful as it had been last time he'd done it, Sam discovered. There were no screams from Seba as there had been from Kias during his first transport, though Sam was a having a hard time hearing anything at all with his head rattling against the floor of the shuttle. Ow, ow, ow.
"Sam?" Kias asked cautiously as soon as the shuttle stopped shaking, and Sam heard him undoing the buckles on his restraints. "Are you okay?"
Sam groaned in response and did his best to keep his breathing even as he rode out the pain. He was going to be covered in bruises, but he didn't think any more serious damage had been done. Kias was at his side a moment later, helping to unwrap Sam from the blanket.
"What just happened?" Seba asked. He looked pale and his hands were trembling slightly. Sam was going to have to do damage control before Seba panicked.
"Something you can't even begin to understand right now," Sam said. "But that's a fantastic thing! With all these strange, impossible things happening, think of all the new things there are to learn."
Seba didn't look particularly convinced. "I would really rather if someone wrote it down in a book and then let me read it. Learning by immersion has its place, but..."
"It's not ideal," Sam admitted. His wrist hurt, but when he twisted it there was only a dull ache. Bruised, probably, but not broken. "How about if I show you something more amazing than anything you've ever seen before? Will that help?"
Seba let out an annoyed huff and shrugged, but he wasn't so terrified that he didn't look curious, if skeptical.
Sam let Kias help him to his feet, and then hobbled over to the overhead compartment containing the tablet he kept on the shuttle. He removed the tablet from the case that protected it during transport and brought it over to Seba.
Sam crouched down next to Seba, holding the tablet up where Seba could see it, and then pressed the on button. When the screen lit up Seba let out a tiny gasp of surprise.
"Don't worry about what or how right now," Sam said. "Just watch."
Sam tapped the icon to launch his reader application, and then selected the option to list all books in the library. "Each row of text is a book," Sam said, and scrolled quickly through them to give Seba an indication of the shear quantity of them. "And these are just the books beginning with the first letter of our alphabet."
Sam tapped a book at random and brought it up. He showed Seba how to scroll through chapters and pages, and then handed him the tablet. "None in any language you speak yet, unfortunately, but once you learn to read Global? You'll never run out of things to read."
Seba took an awed breath in and stared down at the tablet in his hands. He hesitated, though. "Books don't make up for people dying."
"I couldn't have prevented that, Seba," Sam said. "There's nothing anybody can do, and I'm really, really sorry."
"But you knew?" Seba asked. "You knew this was going to happen?"
Sam winced. "Yeah, I did."
"What are you?" Seba asked in a whisper, as though he hardly dared voice the question.
"I'm a person, just like you," Sam said. "I'm just from a different world. Imagine if the people of your world had several thousands years to build and come up with new ideas. They would probably end up with something similar to the world I'm from."
"Did your people make those metal things?"
Sam smiled sadly and shook his head. "There are many worlds. The world I'm from is more advanced than most, but those metal things are from a world even more advanced than mine."
"This is insane," Seba said. "Why are you even saving me? Why me?"
"Because you're smart and because you deserve it," Sam said. "On my world, you'll have everything you need to succeed in your goals and become whatever it is you want to be."
When Seba continued to look upset, Kias walked up to the seat Seba was sitting in and knelt down in front of it. Kias couldn't understand their conversation, but words weren't required to see how distressed Seba was.
"You are okay," Kias said firmly in his own language.
When Sam had taught Seba those words they had been configured differently, arranged into a question, but after a moment of hesitation Seba nodded his understanding. He still looked far from calm, but Kias seemed to have been able to provide at least a little reassurance when Sam couldn't. They had much in common.
"So what happens now?" Seba asked Sam. He sounded like he'd taken a step back from the edge of panic, though not a large one.
"Well, we have to stay in here, unfortunately. For a day. We weren't really anticipating having to leave again right away."
"And then after that we're going to your world?"
Seba didn't seem to know what to say to that, so Sam approached and took the tablet from him. "Here, let me show you what else this thing can do..."
An hour later, Seba had settled in to play a game designed to help children learn to read. It wasn't entirely suited because it assumed the person playing it already spoke the language, but it displayed pictures and it said the words out loud so it worked well enough.
"He's going to be just fine, isn't he?" Kias asked. He had insisted on stripping Sam down to his underpants and rubbing salve on his bruises. He probably would have demanded full nudity if Seba hadn't been present. Not that Kias or Seba would have cared if Sam were completely naked, but Sam preferred to keep his clothes on around young boys no matter their feelings on the topic.
"I give him a week before he's happier than he's ever been in the last couple of years," Sam responded.
Kias smiled. "That's not exactly a lofty goal, considering what his life was like."
"Fine. A month until he's happier than he's ever been before. He doesn't seem to blame his parents for selling him, but I think anyone who would knowingly sell their twelve year old to someone like Kalem were probably not the best parents."
At the mention of Kalem's name Seba glanced over suspiciously, then frowned and returned to his game.
"You might be right," Kias said, "or you might just not understand their perspective. With Kalem, he would have ultimately ended up in a higher position in society. I'm not saying it was the best choice, but maybe it was a well meaning one?"
"I refuse to be open minded about the possibility of someone having good intentions when giving their child to a pedophile. It may be true, but it's not a perspective I want to sympathise with."
"What's a pedophile?" Kias asked.
"I'm sure you have your own word for it, I just don't know it," Sam said. "It's someone who's sexually attracted to children. In my culture, anyone who acts on that kind of attraction is considered the worst kind of criminal."
"I can't say I enjoy your world much, Sam, but at least your people understand wrong from right. I'm glad Seba will grow up somewhere safe."
"Sam," Seba interrupted. "Will you teach me to count in your language? This game is only providing numbers up to five."
For the next ten minutes Sam showed Seba, using a piece of paper from his notepad, how to count and write numbers in Global. Seba went away and mulled the new information over, and when he came back half an hour later he wrote all the numbers up to one hundred out correctly. He mispronounced the word 'thirty', but otherwise when he read them out he had recalled them perfectly.
Seba was going to be fine, Sam assured himself.
The first few hours were easy enough to deal with, Seba having found something to distract himself with. Eventually, though, Seba's focus started to wear down and he could no longer fill the time with learning. Instead, he started asking Sam more questions.
"Where will I live when we go back to your world?"
"With us?" Sam suggested. "I don't know. We'll sort something out."
When Seba looked uncomfortable, Sam tried to word things in a less ambiguous manner. "With us until you find somewhere you'd rather live. We only have a single room right now so it's going to be a bit cramped, and in the long run I think you'd be better off with a proper family. Kias and I will be travelling to other worlds to do our job and so we won't always be there."
Seba made a face. "Who else would even want me? Except as..."
"There are systems," Sam said, quickly cutting through Seba's troubling line of thought. "When children don't have any family to care for them, there are people who volunteer to take those children in. They would treat you as they would their own child."
Of course, who knew how Seba expected parents to treat their children after what his had done. Once Seba understood Global well enough to hold a conversation, Sam would ensure Seba got as much therapy as he could. He would certainly need it.
Sam had been watching the place where the portal would open for the last half hour, keeping an eye on it so that they could leave as soon as possible. Procedure meant it would not be opened early, but he was ready anyway. Having an open portal was always a little risky when there were drones about. They weren't near a city so no drones had approached the place where the shuttle was cloaked yet, but it was better to be safe than to have a drone or ten end up on their world.
When the portal finally did open the reconnaissance shuttle came through, and then promptly turned around and headed back when its sensors alerted it to the presence of drones on the world. Sam would then have sixty seconds to follow before the portal was closed for security. It only took him ten to get his shuttle up in the air and then through the portal.
Kias, who had seated himself next to Sam's feet since Sam and Seba were occupying the seats, still looked quite disconcerted as they made their way through the passage between worlds. Sam stroked a hand over Kias' hair and Kias relaxed just a little and leant into Sam's legs. He was okay.
Seba, on the other hand, was looking far less so. Sam did his best to reassure him. "It's completely normal for someone to find this frightening. I understand what's happening and I've done this many times, but it still makes me uncomfortable. Everything's fine, though, and we're completely safe."
"Safe," Seba said, his voice an octave or two higher than normal. "Right."
As the shuttle slipped through the other end of the portal into Sam's world, Seba's eyes widened with wonderment. Sam was sure they were going to be okay.
Three months later, Seba was already well on his way to settling in. His ability to speak Global already surpassed Kias', though with how little of it Kias had cared to learn that had taken no longer than a couple of days.
Shortly after arriving on Sam's world Seba had requested a haircut, and had insisted his hair be cut even shorter than Sam's. At first Sam had tried to convince him not to do it, but when Seba had said it reminded him of Kalem, Sam had backed down. Despite everything that Kalem had done Seba still felt bad about his death, but that didn't mean he wanted to preserve memories of the man.
At first Seba had lived with Sam and Kias, but he knew his presence forced them to restrict their sex life. When Diego had offered him a room in his apartment, Seba had readily accepted. Diego was calm and was a good teacher, and even though communication had been challenging at first it hadn't impeded them too much. Diego would talk to him in Global even when Seba didn't understand, and Seba would listen and learn.
Seba went to school, too, something that had been equal parts terrifying and exciting when he'd first started. He'd been shocked to realise that many of his peers hated school and saw it as a chore. Seba, who had never had proper schooling before, appreciated the value of an education.
Sam and Kias, meanwhile, had been invited to become some of the first settlers in the new colony, just as Diego had promised. To Sam, it would be the closest he would ever get to returning to the place he'd grown up. To Kias, it was a way of escaping to somewhere where the technological aspects of everyday life were a little less overwhelming. Seba would stay behind with Diego, but he didn't fear seeing Sam and Kias leave. He had his own life without them.
A year later, on the day Kias and Sam were to leave for the new colony, Seba greeted them outside the mothership before their departure with a confident smile.
They said their goodbyes in Global. Both Kias and Seba understood it well enough by then to converse in it.
"I hope you'll come visit us sometime," Sam said. "And bring Diego. And of course, we'll stop by before and after assignments if we can. We'll have to pass through this world to get to them anyway."
"I'll come during school breaks," Seba promised. "This place can get a little..." He gestured, searching for the word he was after. "Small. Not enough big spaces."
"Claustrophobic," Diego volunteered. "And yes, it can. I'll admit that's a large part of the reason I ever wanted to travel between worlds on assignments. This world is my home, but I think humans have a natural desire to experience more natural surroundings, at least every now and then. I can't continue going on assignments until Seba is old enough to care for himself, but in truth the thought doesn't trouble me. I shan't miss the danger the job presents."
Sam grinned. "You always did your job well, but you never really did have any sense of adventure."
"Too little adventure and too much sense, I like to think."
From the direction of the mothership, a horn sounded. Time to go.
Diego stiffened when Sam pulled him into a sudden hug, then laughed and relaxed into it. "Go. We'll be here when you get back."
There were a couple of final hugs and waves and then Sam and Kias were off, heading towards the mothership and towards the beginning of a new life together.