The cycle after that passed with equal silence.
Darrian felt his nerves beginning to fray at the thought that time would simply pass endless while he wasted away in his office. Illiquina would accomplish nothing and the humans would die in a blaze of hellfire without any help from the outside.
It was on the dawn of the third cycle, roughly one cycle from the supposed arrival of the Tulgucks at Mars, that he finally received a summons.
And he was surprised to find that it was from A'alan't 32.
"Report to the council chambers." was all the message said.
Arriving at the conference room, Darrian approached A'alan't 32 and Illiquina stand at the far end of the table. However they quickly waved him away.
"Not now." A'alan't 32 quickly said. "After."
He looked around to realize that it wasn't just them. The other council members were slowly filtering into the room. Not only Ferris, but also Cagool, Cherryl, and Ugul.
"What's this about?" Cagool demanded.
"Oh, don't complain, Cagool." Ferris snipped at him as he settled at the table.
"I'll complain if I want to." Cagool started in defense. "We don't even know where the old judge is or if he'll be joining us."
Darrian had been wondering the same thing.
So far, they'd requested the Merrenian council to provide a second middle-man for their council, but their requests had since been ignored. He'd considered it might be that someone behind the scenes might think it useless to assign a middle-man of the entire species would be dead in a matter of cycles, but Darrian tried to ignore that paling thought.
Instead, he took his spot and looked expectantly at A'alan't 32.
"At this point, it doesn't matter if the old judge is here." A'alan't 32 said to Cagool. "We have work to do."
"Does it really matter? They're going to be dead in a couple of cycles. Then we find a new council."
"Don't talk like that." said Ugul with a hint of sadness to his voice.
"It matters." A'alan't 32 declared firmly.
"Why?" Cagool asked again.
"Because Harris and his team are still doing their jobs." she responded coolly. "The least we can do is return the favor."
Darrian nodded and there were murmurs of agreement. Harris and his team were still out in a hostile, unforgiving solar system where they had to steer clear of toxic oxygen gasses, mutant plant monsters, and an incoming armada. The least they could do was review the information and send back responses.
Or tell them to come home.
"Just bring them back." Cagool snapped sharply, as if reading Darrian's thoughts.
"No." Darrian said firmly. "If the old judge was right about anything, it's that we need to gather as much info as we can."
"About those Guillae things?" Ugul asked.
There were a few sidelong glances, but it was clear that they were simply tired of the bickering and arguments.
"Fine." Cagool said with resignation. "Anything's better than just sitting in my damn office all day."
A'alan't 32 gave an approving nod and a smile and went about working the datapad. While she was not nearly as quick as the old judge with it and she needed to ask Illiquina for help a couple of times, she soon had the holographic imager running hot. A moment later, they were flipping through the messages from Harris.
Many of them were so drull that Darrian regretted agreeing with A'alant 32.
For all of the terrifying images that they had seen from Mars of Human-Guillae hybrids and the implications there-in, the data being sent in was almost non-existent. No video, no audio, and almost exclusively sampling and satellite imagery. Miles worth of long-range scans and data but nothing substantial. It was only after the hundredth orbital survey that someone finally said it.
"They're not on the planet anymore."
"You're right." agreed A'alan't 32.
Tense glances were exchanged, followed by a few unhelpful suggestions as to why the survey team might have retreated to orbit, but it was quickly agreed upon.
"We have to contact them. Figure out what's going on."
It took another few minutes of fiddling with the datapad before they got anywhere. Illiquina was talented and A'alan't 32 had watched the old judge, but neither of them really knew half of what he did up there at the front of the table. It wasn't until someone had the bright idea to reverse trasmit an old message that they got anywhere.
A moment later, they were greeted with the steel-faced grimace of Harris.
"Well isn't this a surprise." he commented. "Where's the old judge?"
"We don't actually know." responded Ferris.
The councilors took time relaying the incidents that occurred several cycles back; of the odd behavior and the sudden disappearance. Harris listened intently, but Darrian couldn't help but notice a twisting look of concern.
"So that's it then? He just went crazy and ran off? No one's seen him since?" he asked in summation.
There were a few murmured agreements.
"Well damn." he groaned. "I'm not sure how I'm supposed to proceed from here then. I'll have to try to reach out to the Merrenian council directly."
"Good luck with that." mumbled Ferris.
"Don't bother." Cagool said. "Just come home. No point in being out there."
"I can't." Harris responded.
A'alan't 32 gave him a sidelong glance.
"It's the humans." he said, returning her gaze.
"What? There are still survivors after that catastrophe on Mars?"
"No. Mars is a wasteland...if you can call it that. Technically, there's already vegetation regrowing around the bases but the humans themselves have all been...converted."
"Then why stay?" asked Darrian.
"You might have noticed that we've returned to orbit?" Harris responded.
"I was wondering about that." commented Ferris.
"It's so we can keep a better eye on Earth and Mars." he said thoughtfully.
"Why?" asked Illiquina bluntly.
"Because I only have so many people." he responded in exasperation. "I can't send recon teams to both locations. I have to use long range imaging."
"I think what Illiquina means," offered Darrian, "is why are you so focused on watching both."
Harris remained quiet for a second before responding.
"It's the humans. I think they've noticed the incoming Tulgucks. The humans on Earth are mobilizing some sort of counter offensive unit. They're preparing for the attack."
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