"They want the artifacts back?" Estandre asked.
Tardis Tails shook his head. "I don't think they'd even know the artifacts from trash. I think they want their 'employees' back."
"Hey -- unh-unh!" Lise said. "You gotta be off your meds if you think that," she said, as all eyes turned on them. "As far as they're concerned, we're expendable. We had to do a contstant song and dance to keep them from giving all our trades to their other 'operaters'."
"You ever meet any of these other 'operators'?" Estandre asked.
Lise scoffed. "What, like we all get together for a friendly cuppa every week? You never been 'round many shadow markets, have you?" she asked.
Estandre had been around them enough to know that, sometimes, the person who was most careful not to let the left hand know what the right hand was doing only had one hand. But he didn't say this out loud. Instead, he took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "What about your parents?" he asked.
"What about 'em?" Mish said. "What do they have -- No. No, if you think they were mixed up with shadow traders, you're really crazy."
"You got mixed up with them," the Third Doctor countered. "So what are we supposed to think?"
"Yeah," Lise said, "but we had to, didn't we?"
Estandre sighed. "How did they die," he asked, "in the War?"
"Who even told you they were dead?" Mish shot back, his eyes dark with anger. "And what's it to you, if they are?"
"If your parents were alive tonight," Uncle Amos said, quietly, "you'd have been safe in your beds, instead of skulking 'round the back of the 'Rocket'."
"Yeah?" Mish muttered, "and what do you know?" (but he couldn't bring himself to look the elder mouse in the eye).
Lise was siding with Mish; her arms were crossed and her jaw was set.
But Zenk shook his head and sighed. "Dunno how they died," he said, "-- in the crossfire, I guess, like all the Bystanders. They went to work one morning; I went to school. It was the Green Sky Day," he said, as if that explained everything.
Mish and Lise started, visibly. This news was a surprise to them, it seemed. But by the looks on their faces, Estandre surmised that they knew the story well, nonetheless.
Zenk didn't notice their reaction; his eyes had the far away look of someone who saw only his memories. "The teachers got us in the Safe Room pretty quick, and kept us there until after it was over. Then, they sent us home. I -- waited for the folks, but --" he shrugged. "Well, I couldn't stay there forever."
"Kroilicks!" Lise muttered, through clenched teeth.
Estandre wasn't sure if the expletive was meant for Zenk, or the events he related -- perhaps both. The less they talked about the events of that day, the more they could pretend their parents were each still alive, somewhere, somewhen. By speaking up, Zenk had broken their silent pact.
Estandre had spent most of his previous life carefully searching for forbidden knowledge -- treading the precarious path between those in the seats of power, and thieves in the gutter. But everyone he'd encountered had been an adult, each as aware as he of the steps to the dance. He was unprepared for this. These three were in between -- thrust too soon, by Fate, into the world of adults, while still clinging to childish make-believe. If he said the wrong thing, they'd shut down completely. But he needed to know, and he didn't want to insult their intelligence, or patronize them. He'd already made that mistake, once, tonight, bringing them in to apologize.
"You still haven't told us why you think our parents are connected to all of this," Mish said.
"Everything is connected to everything," Estandre told him, "including your parents." He turned gaze on Zenk. "You're right," he said,"we are troubleshooters. And you now have a choice: you can either cooperate, and help us fix things, or you can go back to Odrem and keep doing the song and dance for your bosses. Which is it?"
"But we don't know how to fix things!" Lise said.
"That's not my question," Estandre said. "Which do you choose: to help us, or them?"
Lise glanced at the boys, and they each nodded, almost imperceptively. "We'd like to help you, but --"
"Good!" Estandre said, cutting her off. "Then I suggest we retrace your parents' steps, starting with their journey to Odrem. Did your parents ever tell you the name of their home planet?"
"Shemis," Zenk said. "They came from Shemis."
Estandre nodded. "Shemis. Beloved, set course for Shemis, timeframe consistent with our visit to Odrem."
The pitch of Sweetheart's background hum shifted as she charted her new course.
"If you will excuse me for a moment," Estandre said. "I need to see how long the flight will take us. Hopefully, it won't be more than a few minutes..."