Circle’s End Excerpt by on


“In the dawn of our people,” began J’korrash, “there was a time that stood out in our turbulent history for its peace and prosperity. Trade agreements were sealed, and marriages arranged. The lands of the Queen knew only plenty and prosperity, as did their neighbors. Down the river, trade boats sailed, bringing ambassadors with spices and exotic foods from afar, each wanting to be part of the new age of peace. The Queen’s name was Ishardia, and her husband, for she broke with tradition and not only made him King to rule with her, but listened to his counsel, was Zsadhi. But the seeds of trouble were sprouting in her own garden. Her sister, Tashraka, was jealous of her standing among the tribes, and her sister’s husband. She had no patience for this time of peace, believing they were stronger than the other tribes and should take what they wanted.”

“Was this story set where the capital is now?” asked Kaid.

“Indeed it was. Their lands contained the Holy Pool from which all life started, and because of that, they were considered First among the tribes. Tashraka approached Zsadhi, offering him not only herself, but goods and possessions no male had ever owned if only he would help her overthrow her sister. Zsadhi made the mistake of laughing at her before refusing her offer because of his love for Ishardia. Mortally offended, Tashraka vowed vengeance on him and her sister. When told, Ishardia refused to take her sister’s threat seriously, making excuses for her behavior, unable to believe her beloved sister could wish them ill.” She sipped at her bowl of water.

“Tashraka took Nezaabe ,the head of the Queen’s guards as her lover, and together they plotted. He knew of a powerful sorceress in the town that would help them—for a terrible price. Together, one night, they stole through the silent streets to the hovel where the sorceress lived. In return for their newly born egg, Tashraka obtained a spell that changed her into the likeness of her sister, and the guard Nezaabe into the likeness of Zsadhi. Wrapped in cloaks to conceal their new shapes, they returned to the palace. There they revealed themselves to the guards, claiming that they were the real Ishardia and Zsadhi, and that her sister Tashraka, and the chief guard, had trafficked with a sorceress for shape-changing spells and were even now impersonating them.”

“Magic?” murmured Banner skeptically.

J’korrash glanced at him. “Who knows? The guards burst in on the royal couple in their bedchamber and dragged them out into the throne room where the false Tashraka and her lover sat on the thrones. They were sentenced to death, Ishardia to be burned at the stake, and Zsadhi, who was only a male after all, was to be taken deep into the desert and left there without food or water, after he had witnessed his wife’s execution.”

“Some sister,” muttered T’Chebbi.

“Almost destroyed by grief, Zsadhi was dragged to the desert and left, and for ten years, nothing was heard of him. It was assumed he’d perished. For ten years, the country groaned under the cruel hand of Tashraka, still in the shape of Ishardia. An army she’d raised, sending it out to kill all the females and children in the neighboring tribes. The males became her slaves, toiling for her, or tortured for her amusement, so that none dared stand against her. Meanwhile, she studied magic with the sorceress, who demanded a place at her Court.” She stopped to look round her circle of listeners, smiling slightly at the looks of rapt attention on their faces.

“Then the rumors started. At first it was whispers of a desert holy person, a follower of the Goddess La’shol, who preached against Queen Ishardia, calling her a false Queen, one who trafficked with a sorceress of evil. Tashraka ignored them as beneath her notice. But one by one, as her best female Officers were picked off in their villas, the whispers of this desert prophet became louder until the wailing of the males and children left bereft could be heard outside her palace.” She stopped, raising her cup to her lips. Over the rim, she regarded them, her eyes flicking round the circle of her listeners.

“It was said the avenger was a giant of a male,” she continued, lowering her cup to the ground again. “His skin burned almost black from the heat of the desert, dressed in only a loin cloth and weapon belt, he carried a great sword of precious steel that cleaved through the guilty as if cutting a water-rich melon. On his chest was blazoned the sword of the Goddess, with two edges, one to destroy, the other to heal. The innocent and worthy had nothing to fear from him, it was only those who cleaved to the false Queen who need fear his and La’shol’s wrath.”

Kusac shifted uneasily until Carrie took hold of his hand and squeezed it comfortingly.

“La’shol is like our Ghyakulla, isn’t she? A nature entity, not like our L’Shoh who’s the entity of the underworld.”

“Judger of souls,” said Kusac quietly, leaning against his Human mate.

“Yes,” nodded J’korrash. “She’s our nature Goddess. Tashraka was no coward. She dressed in full regal attire, wearing the headdress of the Queen, and stood, surrounded by her guards, on the palace steps. ‘Let this desert lunatic come before me with his claims that I am a false Queen,’ she said to her people. ‘I will prove that he is false by challenging him in mortal combat! The Goddess knows I am the true Queen!”

Stopping briefly for effect, she waited a moment or two before continuing.

“As she spoke, one of the moons began to slide across the face of the sun, blotting out its light. When its disc reached the center, fire blazed forth across the sky, turning everything as red as fresh spilled blood. The wailing crowds parted in terror to let a lone male walk through them to stand in front of the false Queen. All who looked on his face saw that of the chief guard who had disappeared when Ishardia and Zsadhi had been executed.

‘I, the true Zsadhi, challenge you, in the name of the Goddess,’ he said, drawing his sword and holding it aloft. As he did, the moon passed away from the face of the sun, and the fire in the sky shot like a lightning bolt to his raised sword, bathing him in flames. When they died, light returned to the land and Zsadhi had resumed his true form, and the people saw that there were two of him.”

“So the Entities took a hand,” murmured Kusac. “Just as they do on Shola.”

“Maybe they are the same, just in different forms,” said Carrie.

“Maybe they are,” agreed the Prime female. “Tashraka cast off her crown and her robes. Beneath them she wore armor made of glittering links of bronze that glowed like a banked fire. Drawing her own sword, she stepped forth to meet Zsadhi in combat,” said J’korrash. “The fight was terrible, for Tashraka was no mean warrior. Anger and fear fueled her, for she knew the Goddess had kept her sister’s husband alive, and hidden his true form in that of her lover. She flung her evil magics at him, but each time, Zsadhi countered it with one of his own, one learned from the Goddess. Till dusk they fought, each taking grievous wounds, until at last, Zsadhi’s sword pierced Tashraka’s evil heart, killing her. As she died, her own shape returned and all could see she was indeed Tashraka and not Ishardia. At the same moment, her lover once more became the guard Nezaabe, and with a cry of rage, he flung himself at Zsadhi. Before he had taken three steps, the royal guards turned on him and cut him down.”

“What of Zsadhi?” asked Kaid.

“Zsadhi was wounded to death,” J’korrash said. “He fell to his knees, his crimson blood spilling over the sand, but before he could die, the Goddess herself appeared, a bowl of water in her hands. She bade him drink, and miraculously he was healed. She told the people that he was their King, and he would rule over them justly until the time there was one worthy to take his place. For the first time ever, a male ruled alone in our land. His first acts were to condemn the Sorceress to death by fire, and expose all of Tashraka’s supporters and give them to the people to toil on their behalf in improving the lives they had ruined. He ruled for many years, fathering daughters to succeed him, though never marrying again. It was said he could see into the hearts and minds of people just by looking at them, but he was a good and just ruler. The tomb he built to honor his murdered Queen stands to this day by the Summer Palace. On it is inscribed this story.”


M’zull, Zhal-Zhalwae 9th 1553 (month of the sun – May)

The continuous pounding on the door had Shazzuk leaping from his bed, barely awake, reaching for the ancient shotgun he kept propped by the night table. His first thought was that Nayash’s soldiers were finally attacking the village.

“It’s Rhassa, from the chapel,” his wife said calmly, not even bothering to sit up. “Go open the door before she wakes the children.”

Muttering under his breath, the Valtegan slipped an outer robe over his night clothes and clutching his shotgun, hurried out of their bedroom into the large family room beyond as the banging on the door increased in volume. He heard the first sleepy call of distress from the other bedroom and began to swear anew.

Fumbling with the latch, he hauled the simple door open, hissing in anger at the small group that had gathered on his doorstep.

“What do you want?” he demanded. “Burn it, it’s the middle of the night! What could be so damned important that it couldn’t wait till morning?” He glared at the priestess and the two main night guards.

“The Zsadhi’s sword has gone from the chapel,” said Rhassa, torchlight glowing on her hairless green face and head.

Shazzuk took a step backwards in surprise. “What?”

“The sword . . .”

“. . . has gone from the chapel,” finished Roymar, head of the night watch, waving a fist.

“The Zsadhi’s returned and taken it, as was foretold,” said Rhassa.

“Don’t talk rubbish,” Shazzuk said automatically. “That’s only a legend. Someone in the village has obviously moved it.”

“It’s gone,” said Maalash, nodding his head energetically. “I looked.”

“Then someone took it home to clean it,” he said lamely.

“Which of us would do that?” snorted Rhassa derisively. “Besides, it was fused to the wall after being sat in that niche for so long.”

“But the Zsadhi didn’t even live here!” he protested. “He lived on K’oish’ik, not M’zull!”

“He did,” agreed the elderly priestess, pulling her woolen outer robe closer round her against the cold night air. “But you know we were taught that the sword was here, during the Fall, on display in the Governor’s Palace. Your ancestor.”

“That sword’s still there, though it’s in the Emperor’s Palace now,” he retorted. “Besides, it’s all of it only a legend.”

“You know as well as me that the Governor, your ancestor, had the sword copied during the Fall of the old Empire, and secretly hidden here, in this village,” Rhassa snapped. “That sword in the Palace is a fake! The real one was here – till tonight!”

“It’s only a legend,” repeated Shazzuk, but even he could hear the doubt creeping into his voice. “What if it is the Zsadhi’s real sword? Why would anyone here steal it?”

“They didn’t,” said Rhassa, folding her arms across her chest, her mouth widening in a satisfied smile. “Legend tells that when He returns, the Zsadhi will reclaim His sword.”

“What are you saying, Rhassa?” Shazzuk said, using anger to hide his unease.

“I’m saying the Zsadhi’s returned.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Now would be a good time for Him to return,” said Roymar, “before this new Emperor destroys us all with his ambition to reform the old Empire.”

“Be realistic, all of you,” said Shazzuk, trying to keep his tone reasonable. “If any strangers had been in the village, we’d all have seen them. How could the Zsadhi have taken the sword? It’s the work of the youngsters, playing a trick on us.”

“Have you ever tried to take hold of the sword, Shazzuk? Tried to lift it from its place, hidden in plain sight on the wall of the chapel?” demanded Rhassa.

“No, but . . .”

“Because you can’t! It’s as if it was welded into the wall!”

“She’s right,” said Maalash, the other guard, giving the priestess a sideways glance. “I tried to pull it out when I was a lot younger, and it wouldn’t even move.”

“I’m going to look for myself,” he said, stepping over the doorsill and pulling the door shut behind him before pushing his way past the old priestess.

The chapel was an ancient building at the rear of the village, set into the face of the mountain itself. Two life-sized statues of the long dead Emperor Q’emgoh flanked the doorway from which a pool of golden light spilled onto the dirt roadway.

Shazzuk strode inside and instantly the four acolytes searching under seats and behind the altar froze and looked guiltily at each other.

“We’ve looked everywhere, Leader!” said one, standing up. “It’s just vanished. It has to be the Zsadhi.”

Hissing his anger, he threaded his way between the semi-circle of seats to the altar to check the bas-relief carving of the Zsadhi for himself. The space where the sword had been was indeed empty. Disbelievingly, he reached out to touch the imprint of where the weapon should have been. What was it his father had said about it? Suddenly he wished he?d paid more attention to the oldster and his tales of heroes, divine trust, and being descended from the last Planetary Governor of M’zull. Now it was too late to ask him: he?d died three winters ago, taking with him his bitter anger that the rulers of M’zull had supplanted his family, and leaving behind a son utterly disinterested in the faded glories of the past.

His fingers traced the clean edges of the space where the sword had been. It hadn’t been forced loose, it had been lifted cleanly from its bed of cement and painted plaster, displacing not one piece of the surrounding wall. Suddenly he felt the weight of his inheritance fall on his shoulders. Superstitiously he looked along the carved panel to the figures of Queen Ishardia and her sister, the evil Princess Tashraka. He felt a rush of relief: both their carvings were unaltered.

“The Zsadhi has returned,” said Rhassa, her voice echoing in the small chapel. “This Emperor has gone too far, murdering his own brother so he could take the false throne!”

“Be silent!” Shazzuk said, turning round abruptly. “You will never say that again, Rhassa, unless you want to condemn us all to death for treason! Maalash, have the blacksmith make a sword to fill the gap. Wake him now and swear him to silence. The chapel will remain closed until the sword has been replaced. Word of this must not go beyond us, do you all hear me?” he demanded, looking at each of them in turn. “Do you hear me?” he demanded again, louder.

“Yes, Leader!” chorused the guards and acolytes.

“He’ll come here, Shazzuk,” Rhassa said, lowering herself onto one of the benches. “And He’ll call on us to help Him when he does.”

“Enough, Priestess!” he snarled, making his way back through the seats to the entrance. “You’ll say nothing of this to anyone! If the Emperor gets wind of this, it could see the end of all of us. The last thing we need is him sending his soldiers here. Get to your beds,” he ordered the acolytes. “You have your orders, Rhassa. Roymar, get back to your guard post, you too Maalash once you’ve spoken to the blacksmith! I’m going back to bed for what’s left of the night!”


Zhal-Zhalwae, 16th 1553 (May)

With a confidence he wished he felt, Kusac, still in the green skinned reptilian body shape of the young M’zullian Lord Nayash, strode toward the barracks HQ, flanked by the Prime world Valtegans, Cheelar and M’yikku. Rezac, also in the shape of a M’zullian officer, brought up the rear.

Kusac stopped by the door, waiting for Cheelar to open it then entered.

The male on duty at the desk jumped to his feet, chair crashing to the floor behind him.

“Lord Nayash! We weren’t expecting you, sir!” he stammered, trying to salute and pick up the fallen chair.

“Obviously,” said Kusac, with what he hoped was the right amount of disdain. “Have them assembled on the parade ground. I wish to address them.”

“Yessir! Your office is ready for you, as always.”

Kusac raised his eye ridge. “Hardly. My father’s only been dead two days.”

“Yessir! I mean, no sir.”

The scent of the youth’s fear was noticeable and Kusac finally took pity on him.

“Just go and summon my troops,” he said sharply. “I’ll be in my late father’s office.”

“Yes, my Lord,” said the youngster, edging out from behind his desk and bolting out of the door.

Rezac gave a low laugh. “Adolescents in the military, they’re the same everywhere, and in every time.”

Cheelar signaled to M’yikku to go scout out the rooms behind the desk.

“Apparently,” said Kusac, unconsciously tapping the baton of office he carried against his free hand. “The M’zullians can’t tell the difference between us and them, can they?” he asked Cheelar.

“No Captain, we all look like M’zullians,” the youth reassured him.

Kusac nodded and forced himself to relax.

M’yikku returned. “It’s safe,” he said. “There’s a meeting room beyond here, and off to one side is the private office, with a small bedroom with washroom for times when the old Lord stayed the night. There’s even a tiny kitchen.”

“Then let’s examine it,” said Kusac, making his way past the desk and into the meeting room.

Technically it wasn’t on a par with what they had on Shola, or even on the Prime world, but the long table did have built-in comp pads and keyboards, and one side of the wall was lined with screens.

Passing on through it, Kusac came to ‘his’ office. The dry, musty scent, overlaid with the equally pungent smell of liniments made him recoil.

“I’ll open the windows, my Lord,” said M’yikku, heading over to them. “Seems that the old Lord was something of an invalid, preferred to stay here, with his young wife.”

Hand across his nose and mouth, Kusac ventured into the room, looking around at the ancient but obviously comfortable furniture. From there he passed into the bedroom. That was a shock of another kind. Everywhere was the obvious influence of a female, from the pastel shades on the windows, to the carpet, and even the wall hangings and bedding.

“Poor old bugger,” said Rezac quietly. “He obviously doted on his wife to let her have such freedom here, on the base, only to end up murdered because K’hedduk wanted her.”

“Probably why they stayed here often,” said Cheelar. “He knew they were safer here than anywhere else.”

“I want the private rooms gutted right now,” said Kusac. “Get more appropriate furnishings brought in today. I want nothing left to remind me of my late father and his widow.”

“A wise move, Lord Nayash,” said a voice from the doorway of the conference room. “Start fresh, make it to your own.”

Kusac ignored both the newcomer, and his own escort drawing their weapons. “Cheelar, see to it immediately. Call a reputable designer to come out immediately with leaflets and samples. I will make my selections today and they can have it installed by tonight.” He dismissed Cheelar with a wave of his hand before turning to look past his guards at the interloper.

“And who might you be?” he asked the older male while sending a blistering mental complaint to Rezac.

“A distant neighbor. Telmaar’s the name. Had a feeling you might be here today, so I thought it a good opportunity for us to meet. No need for the weapons, I’m relatively friendly,” he added, gesturing to the firearms pointing towards him.

A gesture from Kusac and his guard reholstered their guns. “I’m afraid now is not convenient, Telmaar,” he said. “I’ve a lot I need to see to today.”

“Surely this can all wait a few hours, Nayash? We Officers of the Fleet need to stick together. You’re new to the Court, there’s a lot of factions and undercurrents you should be aware of,” he said, sitting on the end of the table.

The young Corporal chose that moment to return at a run. “Lord Nayash, sir, the troops are deployed on the parade ground for you.”

Kusac acknowledged him with a nod. “Prior commitments, you know how it goes,” he said, apologetically to Telmaar. “Perhaps later in the week, when I’ve settled in.”

Telmaar sighed and got to his feet. “As you wish, but some things won’t wait. Don’t be surprised if you’re summoned to Court within the next forty-eight hours. Our new Emperor is more hands-on than his predecessor was.”

“I appreciate the warning,” Kusac said.

“I’ll give you another. Contact the Palace about your quarters there, today, and go to Court tomorrow, don’t wait to be summoned.” He hesitated briefly. “Have to say, you’re not what I expected.”

“Time to face my responsibilities,” he said briefly. “I’ll keep your advice in mind, Telmaar. At our next meeting, I won’t be so short on hospitality, but right now, as you heard, my people are waiting for me. M’yikku, escort Lord Telmaar to his vehicle.”

With a wave of this hand, their visitor followed the young Prime out.

We have to be more alert to everyone around us! Kusac sent to Rezac as soon as they left. That could’ve been a fatal mistake for us all!

Sorry, Kusac, replied Rezac in a subdued tone. I was focusing on what we were talking about. I should have noticed him.

So was I. We’re equally to blame. We just can’t let our guard down for a moment, replied Kusac.

Going to be a hell of a mission.

We knew that, but it doesn’t hit home until something like this happens. Thank the Gods we were at least talking in character!

“Lead the way, Corporal,” Kusac said aloud. “After inspecting my troops, I’ll want to see their quarters.”

“Yes, Lord Nayash, sir!”

“At least he looked after his people,” said Rezac as they drove back to the estate a few hours later. “But the barrack’s nursery!” He shook his head. “So devoid of anything that would make the young one’s lives normal.”

“They’ve been over two thousand years without female influences in their everyday lives,” said Kusac.

“Aye, but you’d think the drones would be more caring!”

“They can’t afford to be,” said Cheelar. “They’re raising either officers or warriors, and there’s no place in their lives for softness. Any hint of that, and the other males in their caste would destroy them.”

Kusac looked up sharply him. “Was that the kind of upbringing you had?”

“No. We were adults when we were released from the accelerated growth tanks, and we always had the company of our sisters. We weren’t segregated. Our father, General Kezule, let us live more like Primes, though he trained us hard — a mixture of what you did with the Valtegans visiting your world, and his way.”

“The youngsters here are not being brought up unkindly,” said M’yikku, “but they are being raised to be warriors, and strong in mind and body.”

You can’t change how they’re being brought up now, sent Kaid from their mountain base. When our mission is over, everything will change anyway. A few more months is all it will take.

You’re right, Kusac replied. We can’t risk changing anything. Bad enough that I can’t sink to the depths that Nayash did, I’ll just have to hope those who know him accept that his new responsibilities have changed him for the better.

That and the whole burning coffin event at his father’s funeral, sent Carrie from the estate house.

That, too, sent Kusac. Is everything quiet back there? We may have to return you to the base, it’s just too dangerous here. That visit from the Head Inquisitor on our first night really got me rattled.

Not surprised it did, she agreed. I’m still worried about it. Yes, Jo and I are fine. I’d follow Telmaar’s advice, by the way. Get your steward to call the Palace about your rooms there.

Will do. Got to go, almost home now, he said as their vehicle pulled into the estate driveway.

“When do you plan to do our first mission?” Rezac asked.

“Tonight, unless anything comes up to stop us. When we’ve time, I want you to visit the mountain plantation, find out if the gossip we heard at the market village is true and they do live normal lives with their females free. It wouldn’t hurt to have some allies. Talking of which, I want all you can find out about Lord Telmaar, Cheelar. I want to know why he came to meet me today, what he’s hoping to gain by befriending me.”

“I’ll get on that as soon as we get back,” said Cheelar. “Don’t forget that the ordinary troops aren’t bred to be the officer and ruling classes, they’re just the foot soldiers. If they’re as isolated as we hope up in the mountains, we may find they’re a genetic mix that includes both the military and workers.”

When they reached the house, Kusac called Laazif to his office to ask about his quarters at the Palace.

“They’re underground, my Lord,” the steward said. “Unlike his late brother, Emperor K’hedduk, may He live forever, is asking all the nobility and courtiers to base themselves for most of the week at their quarters in the Palace.” He hesitated briefly, and literally taking a step back from him, ventured, “If I may make a suggestion, my Lord?”

Kusac rapidly searched the memories he’d taken from the late Lord Nayash before killing him and taking his place. Nayash had been well known for his volatile and excessive nature, deriving pleasure from bullying and tormenting his late father’s staff, to say nothing of those not considered his personal clique. Well, time to begin as he meant to go on.

“Please do, Laazif,” he said. “I didn’t expect to inherit my father’s title so soon, so any advice you have would be welcome.”

Laazif visibly relaxed. “Then, my lord, I suggest that I send a group of servants and drones to the Palace to open up your apartments. They haven’t been used in over fifteen years. Your late father had no love for Court life, as you know, so there will be a lot to be done to make them habitable.”

“See to it, then. I’ll be taking my staff with me, you included, of course.”

“Yes, Lord Nayash. Shall I call the Palace Chamberlain to inform him of this, and arrange for an appointment to be made with the Emperor? He will want you to swear the Oath of Fealty to him now that you’re the new Lord.”

“Yes, see to it, please. We’ll leave for the Palace tomorrow morning.”

“Very good, my Lord,” said Laazif, bowing to him before departing.
“So K’hedduk’s keeping all his nobles where he can see them,” said Rezac, as soon as they were alone.

“Apparently so,” said Kusac, sitting down at the desk. “If they’re under his nose, he assumes they can’t be plotting against him.”

“Reasonable, given each of the nobles breeds the soldiers and spacers needed not only for the royal troops, but for their own ships in the fleet.”

“Not to mention runs a major commercial enterprise,” said Kusac, turning on the comm and data terminal on his desk. “Mine is three munitions factories. They make the weapons and ammo for the equivalent of their commandos.”

“You do? Hmm, that could be of use to us.”

“Perhaps. Meanwhile, let’s check out maps of the surrounding area. As well as making sure that there’s nothing to stop tonight’s mission, I want to find out exactly where Telmaar’s estate is.”

“Be amazing if it’s his we’re planning to hit,” said M’yikku with a grin.

“Debatable,” said Kusac, pulling up an online map of the area. “However, it looks like it’s not his estate.” A sudden thought hit him and he stopped searching. “Could private terminals like this be monitored from the Palace?”

“Unlikely,” said the young Prime from where he was pouring cups of cold maush for them all. “It would take an enormous amount of people and resources to track every terminal in the city, never mind outlying areas like here. What’s more likely is that certain words and phrases are flagged to trip an alarm, and that will draw the attention of an actual person. Even then, they may not get around to checking each incident out for several hours. I can draw you up a list of the most likely topics to set off such an alarm, if you wish.”

“I’ve been checking for troop movements, and road works. Anything like that likely to set off an alarm?”

“Should be fine,” Cheelar said reassuringly, coming over with wide-mouthed cups for Kusac and Rezac. “If you’d been checking the known routes that the Emperor was taking tomorrow on his way to, say, a specific chapel, then yes, that would set off alarms.”

“Looks like we’ll need to use public terminals in future, to be safe,” said Rezac. “We had to do that back in my time, during the Valtegan occupation of Shola.”

“Make a list of those things we should avoid doing, Rezac,” said Kusac, shutting down the terminal.

“Stop calling each other by our real names, for starters,” said Rezac with a grimace. “I’m as guilty of that as you.”

Lord Rashal’s estate, later the same night

The glow from the nearby capital painted the sky a dull, angry orange, blotting out what little natural light there was from the stars and the thin sliver of the large moon. Ahead, the chapel on Lord Rashal’s estate was a dark shape, the last of the lights having gone out an hour before.

Kusac mentally checked the minds of the half a dozen priests within: all were asleep.

“Move out,” he subvocalized into his throat mic as he slowly rose to his feet.

In a rolling advance, his fire team of three Primes and Rezac, still like himself in Valtegan M’zullian form, rather than their natural feline shape, moved toward the building, making use of the straggling bushes and trees as cover.

Rezac joined him at the front door as the others ranged themselves against the walls on either side.

Quickly pulling this lock pick tools from a side pocket, Rezac bent to the task of opening the ancient door. Moments later, a click that sounded loud in the silence, signaled his success.

Kusac, meanwhile, was checking the hinges for rust. They looked clean, but just to be sure, he drizzled a little oil over them, waiting a minute or two for it to work. At his signal, Rezac lifted the iron ring-shaped door handle and began to turn it, slowly pulling the heavy door soundlessly open.

Like shadows, the five of them slipped into the building, drawing the door closed behind them. The single main room wasn’t completely dark. At the far end, on the altar, twin candles flickered, casting deep shadows on the black carved stone statue of the Emperor behind them.

Between the wooden pews they slipped, keeping to the rear of the chapel where the ordinary estate workers would sit. Leaflets, the exact size of the prayer books lying on the pews, were slipped between random pages and the missals replaced.

While the others were busy doing this, Kusac headed for the front of the chapel, where a diorite statue of the Emperor stood. The head had obviously been recently replaced with a likeness of K’hedduk, as he could see a fine line between the two layers of dark stone, where the neck joined the shoulders.

The body, clad in what he assumed was traditional ancient armor, was more muscular than he remembered K’hedduk’s to be. Reaching out, he ran his hand across the cold polished diorite, picking up the residual worshipful thoughts of generations of priests who had tended it. Definitely not new, then. Reaching higher, he ran his fingertips, not as sensitive in this body as his natural Sholan form, along the slightly rough join. A rushed job, like those on the Prime world. He let his hand slide down to rest on the outstretched arm.

Anger surged through him as he stared at the only too familiar features of the person who had imprisoned him and his family on the Kz’adul, ruthlessly stripped him of his psychic abilities, tortured him, and played god with their genetic material, creating hybrid Sholan/Human cubs to use as weapons against them.

He felt the anger flow from him into the statue, watching as if from a distance as the stone began to grow warm.

Focus! said a voice in his mind as he felt a Sholan hand close on his shoulder. Images of himself and the building bursting into flames filled his mind until the heat beneath his hand became painful.

How? he responded without thinking.

Through the statue, into the ground. The unseen hand tightened, claws extending just enough to prick through his clothing.

L’Shoh! He hissed in pain as the heat beneath his hand intensified.

A mind, immeasurably older than his, grasped his will, gently shifting its focus until suddenly he understood the nature of the diorite and was able to channel the heat he was creating into the harder crystalline structure within it.

The pain in his hand vanished as he watched the stone begin to change texture, become lumpy, and finally start to glow a faint cherry red. As the surface became plastic, the arm began to slump downwards. The hand was the first to go, the fingers becoming molten globules of rock that dripped down onto the stone flagged floor.

Fascinated, Kusac watched the features on the face melt and flow into each other like a wax image. With a hiss, and a blast of heat and light that even he felt, the metal breastplate disintegrated.

“Kusac, stop,” said Rezac from beside him. “Anymore and you’ll be surrounded by molten rock. I think they’ll get the message.”

With a shuddering breath, Kusac pulled his hand off the statue’s arm, leaving behind a perfectly formed handprint in the swiftly cooling stone.

“Hmm, hope they can’t get a palm ID for that,” muttered Rezac. “Still, I think your message is loud and clear. They’ll assume only their Zsadhi could do that.”

A faint chuckle escaped Kusac. “Yeah, I suppose it is,” he said, moving away from the statue.

There’s a carved stone basin over there, Rezac sent, lapsing back into mental speech. Over by the right at the entrance.

Open water is considered holy, Kusac replied.

Think you could carve a sword and the word Zsadhi into it? It would really drive the message home!

He hesitated.

It’s just putting your signature to it, sent Rezac, his mental tone persuasive.

“You worshipers!” The unfamiliar voice was loud in the silence. “What are you doing here at this time of night?”

They all froze briefly, then Rezac swung round, raising his pistol. As he let off a shot, Kusac reached for the mind of the priest. Both were too late, the alarm had been given.

Out, now! sent Kusac, forcing his mental contact on the three Primes.

No time for stealth, just the need to run and escape detection. The Primes reached the door first and had it open as the chapel bell began to peel out.

Get to the car! sent Rezac as he and Kusac reached the font by the doorway.

Kusac found he was holding onto it and surprised, looked down into the stone basin of water — it was diorite like the statue.

A thought in the right direction, now you know the nature of the stone, and it is done, L’Shoh’s voice whispered at his ear. Like this.

A wave of dizziness passed through him, and he felt the intent for the Zsadhi sword to form in the pool, and the name Zsadhi to be written around it. As he watched, it happened.

“Stop using me like this,” Kusac hissed, pushing away from the font and letting Rezac pull him outside.

“You did it!” said Rezac. “Now let’s get the hell out of here before the soldiers arrive!”

They made it as far as the end of the road before they saw and heard a unit of soldiers heading for the chapel at a brisk trot. Diving into the ditch, they lay silently as the grumbling troops passed them.

Heart pounding, Kusac lay beside Rezac, trying to catch their words as they went past.

“Second alarm this month!” said one.

“Probably another novice with nightmares, or a bellyache, like the last time.”

Then they were gone.

Slowly, keeping as low to the ground as they could, they edged towards the main road. Once across it, they made better time to their vehicle, parked half a mile down the road, hidden in a small copse.

M’zullian Palace, small hours the same night

K’hedduk had sent his bodyguards away when Zerdish arrived, wanting time to speak privately to him. More advisor than chief of his personal security, K’hedduk trusted him alone among the current members of his court. It was a slow process replacing his late brother’s people with his own, and he’d been away for several years. Loyalties could drift during times like those.

“Zhiosh is more than a thorn in my side,” he hissed angrily, leaning back in his desk chair. “He blocks me at every move I try to make. It’s intolerable! He has as much of a sense of his own importance as my brother did, and with less reason!”

“May I speak frankly, Majesty?” asked Zerdish, settling himself in the chair to the left of his Emperor’s large wooden desk.

“That’s why I asked you here at this hour,” said K’hedduk testily.

“Head Inquisitor Zhiosh was the power behind your brother, Majesty. Unlike you, he left much of the business of ruling to him.”

“And he wants it to continue, that much is obvious. I need to draw his teeth, Zerdish, but how do I do that when he controls the Court?”

“Slowly, Majesty, one tooth at a time.” Zerdish smiled, showing his own many sharp, pointed teeth in a predatory grin. “In fact, I might have just the incident to start dismantling his supporters.”

K’hedduk raised an eye ridge. “Oh?”

“Apparently there was an attack on the chapel on Lord Rashal’s estate last night. A priest trying to give the alarm was killed, and the chapel was . . . desecrated with symbols of some ancient hero called the Zsadhi. Your statue was melted.”


Zerdish inclined his head in assent. “The stone, a particularly hard one, was melted as if it had been made of wax.”

“How is this possible?” demanded K’hedduk, leaning forward onto the desk. “Once we had such technology, but not now. And who would do it? It has to be members of the Court, or the Officer cadre. The genetic programming of the lower ranks prevents just this kind of behavior.” He paused a moment. “Coupled with the fire effects at Lord Nayash’s funeral, we could have a rebellion brewing.”

“Perhaps. I certainly doubt it is this Zsadhi that’s responsible,” said Zerdish. “However, since it is of a religious nature, you can lay the discovery of the culprits at the feet of the Head Inquisitor.”

“Indeed,” said K’hedduk, a feral grin on his face. “It involves the priesthood and the state religion, and it reeks of sedition against me. Clearly he should be tasked with the investigation. At the least it will keep him out from under my feet for a while, and at the worst, if he finds nothing, it proves his incompetence. Meanwhile, I expect you to do your utmost to uncover the perpetrators, and prevent Zhiosh from making any significant headway. I want those responsible caught and subjected to the most extreme punishment possible as a warning to the rest of the Court! And I want whatever they used to melt that stone!”

“Of course, Majesty.”

K’hedduk reached for the drinking vessel on his desk and took a sip. “Talking of the Nayash family, I’m informed that the new Lord has asked to present himself to me today. I need to bind him to my cause as soon as possible. Thanks to your report, I know he was visited secretly by Zhiosh the night he arrived. He’s not married, and as the new Lord, it’s time he was. I’m sure we can find someone suitable for him.”

“I hear his interests lie elsewhere — apart from the young female his late father married, who now graces your harem as Empress,” said Zerdish, his tone carefully neutral.

“Irrelevant,” said K’hedduk with a wave of his hand, leaning back in his chair again. “He must do his duty to his family, and ties of obligation to me suit my purposes. Do you know of any suitable females? I cannot use one from my currently small harem as he’d likely interpret it as an insult.”

“Actually, yes,” said Zerdish, his attention focusing back on the Emperor. “My guards brought in a female from the mountain tribes last night. She was travelling in the company of a small band of vagrants we were tracking – runaways from estates trying to live out in the mountains, you know the type. They all died in the encounter, but we did capture the female. We haven’t yet ascertained if she was companion or captive, though. Feisty, like I hear he likes them. We haven’t started questioning her yet.”

K’hedduk frowned. “Either my brother, or Zhiosh, was growing very lax to allow such escapees to get as far as the mountains. What do you usually do with them?”

“They’re punished, then we split them up and send them to various Royal Barracks for training. But these died fighting my guards rather than surrendering. The female is not one you’d like, Majesty. Too feisty by half. The patrol brought her in relatively unharmed, beyond the fight. They know what would happen to them if they damaged her.”

“Send her to Keshti, have him prettify her up. She sounds ideal. I’m meeting with Nayash after the Dawn Rites the day after tomorrow, have her ready by then.”

A scratching drew their attention to the door. Before Zerdish had risen from his chair, it banged open to admit the High Inquisitor. Crimson robes swirling around his ankles, he strode purposefully into the room.

“I must speak to you urgently on a matter of great importance,” he said, stopping in front of the desk. “Privately,” he added, turning a scowl on Zerdish as the other continued to rise from his chair.

“I think we’ve covered everything, Zerdish,” said K’hedduk smoothly as his chief bodyguard bowed low to him. “We’ll talk more on the last issue after lunch.”

“Majesty,” said Zerdish, saluting crisply before turning on his heel and marching out.

“I was about to send for you, Zhiosh. We need to replace the ships we lost at the Prime world, K’oish’ik as a matter of urgency,” K’hedduk said without preamble as he gestured the Head Inquisitor to the chair just vacated.

Almost unnoticed, two of his black clad personal bodyguard entered, taking up their accustomed places to either side of his desk by the bookcases.

“They need to be replaced, certainly, your Majesty, but there is no immediate urgency.”

“I told you I plan to launch a larger force against the Primes, while they’re still smarting from the last attack.”

“I should have thought it was obvious to all, Majesty, that it is us who are smarting, not them. What was it we lost again? Some twenty ships and crew, including one of your Generals? But it wasn’t of that . . .”

“We couldn’t have anticipated them getting help from three different species,” hissed K’hedduk angrily, sitting bolt upright.

“That’s why my people gather intelligence before acting. The results tend to be . . . ” he hesitated for effect, “predictable, and in our favor.”

K’hedduk bit back the angry retort on his lips. For now, Zhiosh held the purse strings, but by all that was holy, that would soon change! Forcing himself to appear to relax, he leaned back again. “And how do you plan to gather Intel on the Primes, or their allies?”

Zhiosh’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “We all have our trade secrets, Majesty. We do have footage of the different space vehicles in the battle, which will enable us to identify them.”

Thinking furiously, K’hedduk stared at him. Who could move among the other species without attracting attention? Certainly not their people. Then it struck him. “You’re using the Delmoi and Vieshen as spies, encouraging them to raid shipping lines to gain information.”

Zhiosh’s brow creased in momentary annoyance. “There’s more than one way to skin your enemy.”

“I expect a detailed report from you on your dealings with both those species in two days, Zhiosh,” said K’hedduk, his voice as cold as ice. “I cannot plan campaigns when I am missing vital data concerning my resources.”

“Gathering information is the purview of my department,” began Zhiosh, his tone only slightly conciliatory.

“In two days, Zhiosh,” repeated K’hedduk. “You may have manipulated my late brother, but I am no one’s puppet, as you’ll discover to your cost if you continue to cross me like this. Now to another matter that might have slipped your attention – the attack on the chapel at Rashal’s estate.”

“It was of that matter I came to talk to you, Majesty,” said Zhiosh.

“How could you allow this to happen? You are supposed to root out heresy, prevent such acts as this one of rebellion from ever happening, yet what do I hear? That my statue has been melted—melted!—a priest killed, and symbols of some obscure folk hero belonging to the Prime world, not even ours, have been cut into the chapel walls and a font!”

K’hedduk’s anger as he rose to his feet, punctuating the air in front of the hapless Inquisitor with his finger, was far from feigned. It was Zhiosh’s job to find out about such undercurrents of rebellion and destroy them before they ever crystallized into actions.

“You have failed miserably in this instance, Zhiosh. Where was your vaunted Intelligence? Asleep in the temple cloisters after too good a meal? I swear you and your minions live high on the land yet seem to contribute very little to its protection, or mine, as far as I can see!”

Unseen, the hand resting on the edge of the desk pressed the button summoning Zerdish back into his presence.

“I want this matter solved within the week, Zhiosh. Within the week. Zerdish, escort the Inquisitor out. He’s leaving.”

K’hedduk was pacing in front of his desk when Zerdish returned. “How did my brother allow that . . . parasite Zhiosh to take so much power from him?” he demanded.

“I don’t know, Majesty. I remained on your personal estate, as ordered, until your message reached me a few weeks ago.”

“The question was rhetorical,” snapped K’hedduk, coming to a halt behind his desk. “I know how it happened. He was lazy, let himself be organized rather than make the effort to exert his own control over his courtiers. Well, Zhiosh can abuse himself of the assumption he’ll rule through me as he did with my brother! I’ll strip him of his power, piece by piece, until it’s all mine again, starting with the treasury.”

He sat down in his chair, thoughts tumbling through his mind eighteen to the dozen. “The next council meeting is in two days. I want you and ten of your best inside the council room on guard duty.”

“Majesty, there’s no guard normally in there. Outside, yes, but . . .?

“There will be that day. I’m going to demand he hands over the treasury seal to me, and if he doesn’t, you can take it from him by force.”

“But he’s the Head Inquisitor, sworn to protect your Majesty’s self. It would be treason against you! I can’t do that!” A look of worry crossed the other’s face.

“You can when I order you to do so. He can’t refuse me in public, it would be treasonable. He’d be guilty of the crime he’s sworn to protect me against, unless he has at his fingertips some proof of incompetence on my part,” K’hedduk said confidently. “He won’t find it as easy to argue his way out of that with me as he would with my brother!”

“Doing that so publically will start a war between you, Majesty, one you might not win. All he needs to do is accuse those closest to you of heresy and you will be isolated and in his power.”

K’hedduk stared at Zerdish for a long moment, then sighed. “Thank you for reminding me of that,” he said quietly. “I’ll have to plan this more carefully, protect those loyal to me before I can strike out at Zhiosh.”

“If I may suggest, Majesty, list exactly what his current duties are, and look at how you can reduce them by giving some of his many acquired functions back to those loyal to you. You can do this all in the name of giving Zhiosh the time to spend on those tasks he is obligated to perform. That would be a good place to start,” said Zerdish carefully.

“Indeed it would. There should be a protocol list somewhere, of the court functionaries in my father’s time. I can see from that just where and how he’s built up his power base. Do you know of anyone to whom we could entrust this task? Someone who wouldn’t arouse suspicion? I’ve been gone too long from the Court to have gotten a proper feel for all the undercurrents yet.”

“I know just the person. One of the scribes. Loyal to you, but ambitious. I’ve had a few dealings with him in the past.”

“Very well. Tell him to research the various roles of Court officials in the last hundred years He’s doing this so I can put together a commemorative book I plan to write about my father.”

“I’m sure no one could find fault with that, Majesty.”

“Tell Garrik. I want to be sure the apartments of Lord Nayash are as welcoming as possible. I want him to know from the start that I value his presence at Court.”

“He’s young, would make a good ally. He’s not the sort to hold a grudge at losing his young step-mother to you, Majesty.”

“My thoughts exactly,” said K’hedduk with a smile. “Let’s hope the gift of a sentient wife will sweeten his mood.”

“My guards tell me she’s also pretty,” said Zerdish. “I called them while you were with the Inquisitor. She is on her way up to the harem now.”

“Keshti’s a drone, isn’t he? Can such a sexless person as a drone really prepare a female to be an obedient and pliant wife?”

“I believe so, Majesty,” said Zerdish. “When your brother held his open days and the Court females were all allowed to gather in his harem, Keshti was much in demand by the Lords to add to their training.”

“Good! Good! I will go speak to Keshti now, be there when this female arrives to see her for myself.”

Ghioass, Kuvaa’s home, same day.

Annuur the Cabbaran moved restlessly on his large floor cushion, pounding the stuffing briefly with his hoofed forelimbs. “Lassimiss been on M’zull long time, that not in dispute,” he almost snarled, wrinkling his long snout. “What to do with him now is question!”

“Replace him is obvious,” said Azwokkus, TeLaxaudin leader of the Reformist party. “How is what we discuss!”

“Too much discussing,” said Kuvaa, reaching for one of the vegetarian tidbits on the low table with her tripartite hoof. “Just take him, put someone reliable in place. Sand-dwellers won’t notice.” She looked across at the spindly limbed insectoid beings.

“Is Isolationists we worry about, not sand-dwellers,” Aizshuss, the other male TeLaxaudin present said gently.

“Ha! Make him squeal like he is killed for Isolationists to hear, no problem then!” said Annuur. “In fact, no bad points to that idea! Him I would like to pound to dust for the damage he has done to us all with his interference!”

“There will be no pounding, no matter how tempting,” said Elder Khassis, the only female TeLaxaudin present, firmly. “His questioning will be enough to strike fear and dread into him.”

“Kuvaa’s point valid,” said Shvosi thoughtfully, sipping her fruit juice through a long straw. “If he is just taken and instantly replaced by one of us, and death cries transmitted to Isolationists, no one the wiser he not killed by sand-dweller.”

Unity will know,” said Azwokkus. “How we hide this from the AI? That is the bigger question.”

“I heading up a unit of Security for Unity now,” said Kuvaa. “Told you I would make this my work.” Her lips quirked in what was a smile for Cabbarans. “Unity itself is a good teacher. Our long passed Elders programmed it well.”

‘Tell me you found how Isolationists hide from us,” demanded Annuur.

“I have not found that yet,” she said regretfully. “But with help of Hunter Kusac, I can record “death” of Lassimiss.”

Aizshuss drew his bronze spindly form upright on his cushion. “You can? How?” he demanded.

She wrinkled her long, mobile snout. “Complicated to explain, but we need Hunter to take memories of time with M’zullians from Lassimiss and give to replacement. This we cannot do, as you know. Also, with him in sand-dweller form, if he “kills” Lassimiss, Unity will record it.”

“Hmm, danger is Hunter really kills him!” said Shvosi, the other Cabarran present.

“He will,” assured Kuvaa, “but briefly. Resuscitate him here we will.”

“And how we hide all this from Unity?” Khassis asked skeptically.

“We don’t, until we return here,” Kuvaa told her confidently. “We teleport to our isolated safe zone and hold him there. Isolationists use another method to hide their doings, but we have cooperation of Unity, as you know.”

“It could work,” said Aizshuss thoughtfully.

“Only plan we have after days of thought and hours deliberating today,” said Khassis dryly. “Act as soon as possible, we must.”

“Can do it now,” said Kuvaa. “Drug I have, and Unity had teleporter pad installed here when I became a Senior member of Camarilla. Importantly, is night now on M’zull world and Hunter sleeps. Tomorrow he will move to underground sand-dweller palace. Easier to take him from above ground.”

“Do we know Lassimiss’ current location?” asked Aizshuss. “You become a dangerous person since your elevation, young Kuvaa.”

“In his quarters at the palace, alone, Unity tells me,” said Kuvaa after a moment.

“Dangerous as befits a Security head for Unity,” Annuur responded quickly. “Training her I have been, but now you need more security yourself, Kuvaa. I lend you my family – Tirak and Mrowbay, security experts. They ensure you safe.”

“Not necessary . . .”

“Take them,” ordered Khassis. “Essential to all we do are you. Your loss a blow we cannot afford.”

“That means opening up secrets to them,” objected Aizshuss.

“If we cannot trust my Family, who can we trust?” asked Annuur sharply, raising himself up onto all fours. “Then let us do this deed now, stop the rot on M’zull from going further.”

“A moment,” said Kuvaa, getting up too. “Decide who replaces Lassimiss you must as I get drug and dispenser.”

As she trotted off into her work area, the other four looked from one to the other.

“One of impeccable trust must it be,” began Shvosi.

“Who knows what they take on,” agreed Khassis.

Azwokkus’ pale gray draperies stirred around him. “I will go,” he sighed.

Annuur’s head swiveled round to look at the TeLaxaudin. “You? But you dislike conflict!”

“In my younger days, that was not always so. As Khassis will agree, my personal arsenal is formidable. Equipped I am with knowledge and experience to handle this.”

Khassis ducked her head in agreement. “Is true, wild he was in his youth.” A buzzing laugh accompanied her words. “Better this kept among us.”

“I see sense in this but Kuvaa will not like exposing her mentor and friend to this risk,” Shvosi warned.

“Who better to keep me safe?” said Azwokkus, bringing his small hands up to his face in an expansive gesture.

“I fetch my Family first,” said Annuur, heading for the transporter plate in Kuvaa’s atrium.

“Kathan help you if you’re hiding anything else from us, you dirt-grubbing rodent, Annuur!” Tirak was swearing as he materialized in the indoor woodland of Kuvaa’s home.

What else he had to say was cut short as he took in his surroundings, ears laid back in disbelief. At his side, Manesh, hand on his newly returned pistol, was silent, as was Mrowbay.

“Come,” said Annuur as he led the three U’Churians at a trot into the living area. “Polite you be, these are old friends and colleagues.”

At around six feet tall, the feline U’Churians were used to dwarfing many of the Alliance races, except the Sholans whom they resembled, but neither of them were used to the TeLaxaudin. Small, with spindly stick-thin bronze colored limbs and huge eyes, they were indeed one of the more exotic known species. Rarely seen off the Prime world, Tirak was surprised to say the least to suddenly be face to face with three of them.

Khassis began humming in a high pitched tone, then her translator cut in. “Captain Tirak, a pleasure to finally meet with you. Much have we heard of you in Agent Annuur’s reports.”

“Khassis this is, Elder female of TeLaxaudin,” said Annuur, sitting back on his haunches. “Aizshuss and Azwokkus these are. My people are Shvosi, and this,” he pointed to Kuvaa as she, hearing the strange voices, scampered back hurriedly, her small hooves beating a tattoo on the wooden portions of her floors. “This is our hostess, Kuvaa, and the one you will protect like Family.”

“U’Churian warriors,” whispered Kuvaa in awe as she skidded to a halt. “You honor me, Annuur.”

“Kathan’s Blessings to you,” said Tirak, saluting reflexively. “Merchants, actually.”

Annuur snorted. “Who believes that?” he asked of no one in particular.

How much do they know, Annuur? sent Khassis over their private mental link through Unity.

Enough, he replied briefly. “Kuvaa works as Security head on our advanced AI here. Have reason to believe faction antagonistic to us will attempt to harm her. This must not happen.”

“How do we know you have the right of this matter?” Mrowbay, Medic on Tirak’s ship crew asked. “Perhaps you are the ones we should guard ourselves against.”

“Do you trust me?” asked Annuur, looking up at the two black furred males.

“We did,” said Manesh. “But now we find out you have more secrets than a smuggler!”

“A whole world we knew nothing about, where our people live with you and the TeLaxaudin,” said Tirak. “Alliances with other aliens we didn’t know existed, and technology we could only dream of, and you ask if we can trust you?”

Voices rose around them as Khassis, Shvosi and Aizshuss began to talk all at once. Only Aizshuss and Kuvaa remained silent.

Rising to her haunches, Kuvaa said quietly, “Do you trust the Sholan Hunter, Kusac? Do you wish to protect his mate and their children, like Shaidan? We do. The Hunter is on M’zull with his warriors, trying to bring down the Emperor K’hedduk.”

The others fell silent, letting her continue.

“He will need help, and to give him it, we need me to work with Unity, the AI here. Others work against him, and to stop us, would do us all harm. We risk as much as them to stop the darkness of the sand-dwellers spreading over our galaxy. Will you help us?”

“A pretty speech,” said Manesh, “but can you prove it?”

“I’ll believe it from Kusac himself,” said Tirak after a small hesitation. “You can contact him, I take it?”

“You hurt my sensibilities,” said Annuur soulfully, gesturing to nearby vacant cushions. “Did we not help him retake the Prime world? Were you not there target-marking for the fighters of the Touibans?”

“Take him with us to deal with Lassimiss,” said Azwokkus. “Simpler.”

“Us?” echoed Kuvaa, rounding on her friend, head crest dipping toward him and mobile snout wrinkling in distress. “You are going? Tell me you not replacing Lassimiss? The danger!”

The TeLaxaudin patted her arm with his small hand. “Peace, youngster. We need me to go. I have knowledge and protections to accomplish this task. I be safe. Instantly I can transport home if trouble emerges. If not ourselves we risk for what we believe, then who?”

“But you not field agent!” she wailed, butting her head up against him.

“In his day, he was,” said Shvosi, nodding her head. “He can do this.”

“Sit,” Khassis’ translator said to the two U’Churians in a tone that brooked no refusal. She pointed to a jug and two clean drinking bowls. “Your caution is good, but for now, drink, take snacks. You, Tirak, will accompany Annuur to visit the Hunter shortly. You can speak to him yourself.”

M’zull, that night.

A damp nose snuffling in his left ear woke Kusac. With a stifled cry, he leaped out of the other side of the bed, pistol already in hand.

“Is only me, Kusac,” said Annuur’s quiet voice from the darkness. Don’t call others, the Cabbaran warned mentally.

“What the hell do you want now?” demanded Kusac, lowering his gun, tail lashing from side to side. “You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you, I’m in Sholan form right now. You even aware of the concept of privacy?”

“Important this is,” said Annuur as he turned on a dim bedside lamp. “Tirak needs to talk to you.”

“Tirak? He’s on . . .” He ground to a halt as Tirak, ears laid back and blinking in confusion, suddenly appeared beside the Cabbaran.

“No time for that. Mission we have. Must do this tonight,” said Annuur.

“”I’m doing nothing more for you,” snarled Kusac, leaning forward to take a swipe at the Cabbaran, surprised when it actually contacted flesh and fur. “What the hell? You’re really here this time!”

“Owww! Abuse me if it pleases you,” snuffled Annuur, sitting up and rubbing the side of his head. “But work we need to do now!”

“I didn’t believe you could do this,” said Tirak, glancing round the room. “Is this M’zull? Are we really here?”

“Yes. I don’t know how you got here, but you’re jeopardizing my mission by your presence! What the hell do you want?”

“Has Annuur been helping you?” Tirak demanded. “We’ve learned a lot that’s unbelievable in the last few hours. I need to know which side he’s on.”

“His own, like the rest of you. Where it coincides with ours, he has helped, though,” Kusac admitted grudgingly.

“See?” said Annuur, looking at Tirak. “What I tell you? Now to business.” He looked back at Kusac. “We need to remove TeLaxaudin helping K’hedduk and replace with one of us. Tonight, before more damage he does.”

Kusac rubbed a hand over his sleep-heavy eyes. “Hold on a minute. Where did this TeLaxaudin come from, and why is he helping K’hedduk?”

“And how long has he been helping him?” demanded Tirak.

“That we will find out,” said Annuur grimly. “He is member of Isolationist faction among our peoples, us and the TeLaxaudin. They wish us to isolate ourselves from you younger races. We, as Reformists, wish to help you all, as this danger to you is also danger to us.”

Kusac digested this for a moment. The door behind his visitors opened quietly and Rezac, in Valtegan form, slid into the room.

“What the hell?” he hissed.

“Rezac, greetings,” said Annuur, glancing over his shoulder briefly, putting a restraining hoof on Tirak’s hand as the other reached for his side arm. “On mission we are, to replace traitor TeLaxaudin aiding K’hedduk. Kusac’s help we need.”

“Playing both sides against the middle, were you?” asked Rezac, coming further into the room. He nodded at the U’Churian in passing. “Tirak. No surprise to see you here.”

“I only just found out about all this,” muttered Tirak. “Don’t include me in this conspiracy!”

“We have good person to put in place of Lassimiss,” said Annuur. “He will frustrate K’hedduk while aiding you. Even you must see need to remove him at least.”

Again Kusac hesitated. Granted the Cabbaran had been of some help in the past, and removing anyone helping K’hedduk with access to the tech both those races possessed was a big plus in his book, but he still had his doubts.

“You’ll have to earn my trust, Annuur,” he said, coming out from behind the bed. “I’ll help remove this Lassimiss. Who are you replacing him with?”

“Admirable friend called Azwokkus,” said Annuur. “Of use to you can he be when you in Palace. Plus you and he can communicate when wished. Can make yourself a niche with sand-dweller Emperor by handling this awkward alien for him,” he said with a chuckle.

“Dangerous to do that if he’s feeding false info to K’hedduk,” warned Rezac.

“Indeed,” agreed Kusac, sitting on the edge of his bed. “So what does this mission entail? And where is Azwokkus?”

“You need to be Valtegan,” said Annuur. “I transport you to Lassimiss’ rooms and there you overpower him using drug I give you so his arsenal he cannot activate against you. This slows him. Then you kill him using another drug injected into him. When clinically dead, we appear, take him and revive back on our world, and Azwokkus takes his place. Valtegans cannot tell difference.”

“Sounds simple enough. Where’s the catch?” asked Rezac, staying between them and the door.

“Catch?” asked Annuur, turning his head to look at him, crest tipping momentarily back. “No catch, except . . .”

“Ah, now we have it,” said Rezac.

“They’re all linked into an AI called Unity,” said Tirak. “It needs to see a Valtegan kill Lassimiss for the Isolationists to believe he’s dead, and not in Reformist custody.”

Kusac stared at Annuur as pieces of the mystery of the voices in his mind on K’ijik, and the Prime world, suddenly began to fall into place.

“This AI,” he said slowly. “Can it act independently, or only through one of your two races using it?”

Annuur’s small ears tilted forward in concern. “Why you ask?” he demanded.

“Because something has been trying, and in part succeeding, to influence me for some time. I sensed a network on K’ijik, and on the Prime world.” Realization hit him. “And even on your ship, the Merchanter’s Gamble, Tirak! Dammit, Annuur, is there nowhere your hoofs don’t get involved? You tried to make me let King Zsurtul die!”

“Not us,” assured Annuur. “Nor Unity. The rot has gone further than we knew. Aware that Isolationists been interfering with you, and they are trying to trace where we are right now.”

“It’s linked into lighting,” said Rezac. “The lights would flare, on the Kz’adul, then we’d lose time and things were changed, people went missing . . .”

“The same on K’ijik, and in the Prime Palace,” added Kusac, anger growing inside him at how he’d been manipulated all along by Annuur’s people.

Annuur stamped a hoof on the floor. “Not us!” he said firmly.

“Yes, you! Especially that mystic of yours, Naacha,” snarled Kusac.

“You too powerful after mental operation,” sighed Annuur, waving a forelimb expressively. “Had to restrict your new powers, let you grow into them, train you. Unavoidable this was, for your safety, and your Family’s.”

“You had no right to mess with my mind!”

“Have you powers to deal better with this enemy now?” demanded Annuur, as Kusac took a step angrily towards him. The small Cabbaran pushed the tall U’Churian aside when Tirak would have stepped between them. “Should we have left you crippled as K’hedduk left you, with no purpose, no hope? Tell me we did wrong!”

“You should have asked me!” he snarled, fighting to keep his voice down and his vision from narrowing into hunter-mode.

“Must focus on battle we fight now,” said Annuur. “Later we discuss this. More important stopping K’hedduk is now. Time for the rest later.”

“And how in all the hells do I do that with your people — sorry, your enemies —mentally manipulating me?” he demanded.

“Working on that now are we,” assured Annuur. “Tirak and Mrowbay to be guarding our investigator. Ask them if this not true!”

Tirak nodded as Kusac looked to him. “Yes, we’ve just been detailed to guard a Cabarran female called Kuvaa. I insisted on talking to you first to know if their claims of helping you were true.”

“He’s right, we need to focus on the enemy we can see and know is a present threat,” said Rezac. “Then we deal with them.”

Kusac took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax, and nodded slowly. “There will be a reckoning,” he said. “For now, we’ll help. Prove yourselves worthy of trust in the meantime, Annuur.”

“Oh, there will indeed be a reckoning,” said Annuur, his tone also grim. “Meanwhile, inform me if you hear voices seeking to influence you. Give what details you can and we will investigate. This interference is not sanctioned, or tolerated by us!”

“Just who the hell is this us, and what gives you the right to interfere at all?” demanded Rezac.

“Not now,” said Annuur dismissively. “Change to Valtegan form you must now, Kusac, so we can begin this mission. All is ready. I have drugs you need, everything, and Azwokkus stands waiting.”

M’zullian Palace, Lassimiss’ rooms

His senses strained to their limits, as he materialized in the darkened room, Kusac dove across the carpeted floor for the cover of the nearest piece of large furniture. He heard an indistinct crackling sound, then a thin shaft of energy hit the space he’d just vacated. Faint sparks glowed briefly in the dark as the stench of burning carpet filled the room.

“Dammit, Lassimiss! Stop shooting, it’s me!” So much for him not attacking me! Kusac mentally snarled to Rezac.

“Who is me?” demanded the TeLaxaudin from the darkness.

“How many other people visit you with translocators?” he demanded, inwardly cursing his inability in Valtegan form to read the air currents in the room, tell if the alien was standing still or moving closer to him. “It’s Nayash!”

“How you sneak in using that?” Lassimiss retaliated. “I not give you coordinates! Who did? What you want?”

“I worked it out for myself,” he said, carefully edging round the side of the chair, attempting to keep its bulk between them. “Put the damned light on! We need some of that aid you promised us.”

Silence, followed by a series of sharp clicks and humming that the translator failed to render into speech, then gradually the main light came on.

“Show yourself, Hunter,” Lassimiss said. “Then tell me what you need.”

Cautiously Kusac peered round the edge of the chair. “Give me your word you’ll not shoot at me again.”

More untranslatable humming and clicking. “Do not provoke me, then. Show yourself!”

Slowly, Kusac rose to his feet, never taking his eyes off the small alien peering out at him from behind a sofa.

“We need papers printing,” he said. “Leaflets.” He waved the piece of paper clutched in his left hand. “We cannot print more of them and we’ve used what we had.”

“Give to me. Will see what can be done,” said Lassimiss, large eyes swirling, holding out a small and imperious hand.

“Come and get it,” said Kusac. “I’m not stepping into the open until you do.”

“Then no help!”

“Meet me halfway,” said Kusac, gesturing to the low table that stood between them. “You shot at me, after all. I have reason to be cautious.”

“Then leave. No help for you. It matters not to me.”

“I’m not leaving,” said Kusac. “I’ll remain here until I get what I need. Pity if Emperor K’hedduk sends someone to fetch you.”

Staccato clicks greeted this as Lassimiss’ mandibles clashed, but cautiously he edged out from behind the sofa.

Kusac also moved into the open. As they slowly advanced toward the table, Kusac saw Annuur suddenly appear behind Lassimiss, weapon ready.

Kusac reached for his gun. A short phut of air, and the TeLaxaudin collapsed like a bundle of twigs as the anesthetic dart hit him. Remembering his instructions, Kusac cautiously approached the supine TeLaxaudin. The moment coalesced into one of trust for Kusac – did he trust Annuur to be telling him the truth or not? He locked eyes with the other, then, with the briefest of nods, pulled the trigger again, shooting Lassimiss in the neck, then handed the gun back to Annuur.

The air shimmered and another TeLaxaudin, dressed in shades of soft gray appeared. Instantly, both Annuur and the stranger were all over the fallen one, pulling the off-white draperies aside and stripping off what looked like jewelry — rings, bracelets, and searching in almost invisible belt pouches, as well as Annuur tapping its limbs in various places with a small, faintly glowing rod.

“We disable him, make him unable to fight back when we resuscitate him,” said Annuur looking up briefly.

Kusac straightened out of the defensive crouch he’d been in and joined them, looking down at the untidily sprawled alien and the large pile of devices beside him.

“Did not know he had this,” said the strange TeLaxaudin, sitting back on its haunches examining an elaborately jeweled bracelet.

“He was wearing all that?” asked Kusac, pointing at the growing pile. “I didn’t see any of that on him.”

“Not jewelry, his arsenal,” said the newcomer tersely. “Annuur, see what he carries! Contraband weapons—neural disruptor, nanites even! This is very bad.”

“Poisoned flechettes too. You lucky he only shoot at you with energy weapon, Kusac,” said Annuur, carefully lifting the items one at a time and putting them into a soft cloth bag he took from a pouch at his waist belt.

“He wasn’t supposed to shoot me,” said Kusac.

“Hoped he would not, but you accomplished mission. Allowed us to intervene.” The newcomer folded himself back on his spindly haunches and looked up at Kusac, his large eyes swirling as the lenses adjusted to near vision. He extended a dainty hand towards him. “Azwokkus I am. A pleasure to meet you . . . Kusac.” There was the faintest of hesitations before he said his name.

Slowly Kusac crouched down to the other’s level, reaching out to him until their fingers touched. His hand was grasped firmly, far more firmly than he had expected. Azwokkus’ hand felt cool and dry to his touch – and he could feel each of the fragile bones beneath the surface. Then the hand withdrew, leaving him with the knowledge that he had been honored with a great measure of trust by this physical contact between them.

“I am replacing Lassimiss. No longer will any aid be given to the sand-dwellers. He must be removed, then we talk,” he said, gesturing to the still form.

Azwokkus stood up, draperies moving gently around him.

Annuur looked over at Kusac. “Be quicker if you helped,” he said pointedly.

“Um, sure,” said Kusac, reaching out from his squatting position to pick up the nearest piece of jewelry. It resembles a jointed finger, complete with a thin nail at the end.

“How is this a weapon?” he asked, turning it over in his hands.

“Careful!” said Annuur sharply. “Worn on finger, it bends and he sends mental command for thin metal shards, like needles, to fire from the tip. Put in bag! Must hurry!”

Kusac placed it carefully in the drawstring bag Annuur held open for him, then reached out to pick up a couple of conventional looking rings. “What will you do with him?”

“He will tell us everything,” said Azwokkus, unclipping something from his belt and attaching it round Lassimiss’ arm. “We then collect more evidence to indict his faction, prove they acted against council wishes, aided enemy to us all. Threat posed by sand-dwellers must be negated once and for all.”

“We need you to read his mind,” said Annuur. “Give Azwokkus knowledge transfer of Lassimiss’ dealings with K’hedduk he needs.”

“You aren’t serious, are you?” Kusac asked

“Very,” replied Annuur. “You do with M’zullians and Primes, what problem doing with TeLaxaudin?”

“I’ve spent nearly two years living with Kezule and his people, I know them well, know how they think. The TeLaxaudin are an unknown species to me. I don’t know how their minds work. Besides, he’s dead according to you.”

“Have you tried?” demanded Annuur.

“I tried with Kizzysus and got nowhere,” he admitted.

“Then on my own wits I will have to depend,” said Azwokkus. “A little forgetful I may seem to be, but not to be helped.”

“How are you going to resuscitate him?” demanded Kusac.

“His heart stopped long enough for Unity to decide he is dead, but not long enough to really kill him. No tissue damage will the poison cause. Once back on our world we can revive him.”

“I go now,” said Annuur as the last item was placed in the bag and he pulled the draw strings tight. “Tell Azwokkus what you need, we help where we can.”

“How?” asked Kusac.

“Translocator also communicator,” said Azwokkus. “I show you.”

“Be safe, Azwokkus,” said Annuur, pulling his own translocator free of his belt. “You, too, Kusac!”

“Wait!” said Kusac, reaching out for the Cabbaran, but he and his prisoner had already blinked out of existence.

“It can wait,” Azwokkus hummed gently. “Focus on main task for now we must. I am here to aid you, despite what the sand-dwellers think. They will not notice it is me, not Lassimiss. What is needed by your team?”

“Don’t you know that already? You’ve been spying on us for Vartra knows how long!” Kusac said, getting to his feet as his anger finally beginning to surface.

Azwokkus’ eyes swirled rapidly as he gazed up at Kusac. “I have little time now. Must familiarize myself with this room, become Lassimiss to them. Waste that time, will you?”

Automatically Kusac raised his hand to his brow to run it through his hair, only to realize at the last minute he wasn’t his Sholan self.

“Dammit,” he muttered, pulling his scattered thoughts together. “Maps. We need maps. They’re difficult to get without drawing attention to ourselves. And a way to hide our searches of the data bases here. We’re vulnerable, unable to safely hack into their very old fashioned systems.”

“Maps I can get. Holoprojector of place I can also get. Will send you a device to use for your data searches, a safe one, untraceable.”

“That would be very useful. What else can you give us?”

“No weapons, but supplies for you and those in the mountains can we deliver. Food, consumables. Printed leaflets too.”

Kusac nodded. “Those we can use. How much notice do you need? And show me how this translocator works so I can also communicate with you.”

“Please,” said Azwokkus, moving closer to him and holding out his open hand.

Kusac dug the device out of his pocket and passed it over to the TeLaxaudin.

“Dials you set like this,” he said, showing him as Kusac leaned closer.

A faint leathery smell exuded from the small alien, one he’d not noticed till now.

“Do you have an arsenal like Lassimiss?” he demanded abruptly.

The insectoid face tipped up toward him again, the small frontal mandibles on either side of the mouth clicking as the eyes above them whirled briefly with rainbow colors before stilling.

“I have one, yes. We are fragile people, not suited to personal conflict. Among us, weapons are rarely used. Presence of them is enough of a deterrent.”

His head dipped down again to the translocator. “This setting,” a long thin finger pointed to it, “will let you leave messages. Light blinking here means safe for you to translocate to me. This light means message for you.”

Kusac nodded and accepted the device back. “What about using this to travel to other places? Places I choose?”

“No. Cannot do,” said Azwokkus with finality. “Much power it uses, too noticeable here on M’zull. Use restricted. Return to your residence now. Work must I do, settle in and become Lassimiss. Your help tonight appreciated.”

The TeLaxaudin touched his belt and Kusac felt the room begin to fade as darkness snatched him. Then just as suddenly, he was back in his room at the villa where Rezac was waiting anxiously for him.

Dark Nadir Excerpt by on


Cryo, the long night without end, the cold from between the stars. Heartbeat and breathing decelerate as the chill gradually seeps deep into flesh and bones, robbing them of warmth, of movement. Thoughts slow, messages no longer being sent to limbs and organs as the mind pulls itself back, retreating from the bitter cold till all that remains is a tiny spark of consciousness poised between life and death. Cryo sleep, the temporary death, where nothing stirs, no breath, no thought — no dreams.

With Nayash, his pilot, recovering from a wounded flank, Captain Tirak had asked Kaid to help out on the bridge during take-off. Now they were under way, Kaid needed to check up on his people. The mess area where they were waiting was adjacent to the sickbay, but inexorably his feet led him back to there. Saying he was checking up on Zashou would fool no one, least of all himself, but he had to see them once more — had to know that Carrie and Kusac were alright. He’d grown so used to their presences within his mind that their absence left him feeling unsettled. These feelings were so foreign to him that it was with relief he saw that Zashou was still asleep. It was hard enough for him to cope without having to explain it to someone else.
It was Carrie’s unit he went to first. He looked through the cover, feeling instantly protective of her. She looked as if Kuushoi, Goddess of Winter, had embraced her, turning her flesh as pale as the snow on the Dzahai mountains. Memories of taking Carrie there to visit his home sprang into his mind. It was there, once he’d fully accepted his place in their lives as their third, that they’d finally become lovers.

Through the pale cream fabric of her shift, the blood-stained dressing across her belly and side showed up starkly. Instinctively his mind reached out for hers, pushing aside the barriers behind which he’d been hiding. He could sense nothing. His hand shook slightly as his fingertips brushed the surface of the unit, caressing it as if it were her he touched. Mrowbay had spread her long blonde hair carefully on the pillow. He remembered how soft it felt, so unlike his own Sholan hair. Then he sensed the U’Churian Captain watching him from the doorway.

“Mrowbay says she’s stable,” said Captain Tirak, “and safe. But you know that since you treated her. Excuse my curiosity, but you obviously care very deeply for her. Are you and her mate related? Brothers, perhaps? I know they’re a mind-linked pair.”

“Brothers. Yes,” Kaid replied distractedly as a prescient fear he’d never known before swept through him. Turning to look at Tirak, he did a double-take, thinking for a brief moment he saw Kusac standing there. The outward physical similarities between their species were uncanny. Pushing his fear aside with an effort, he retreated again behind his mental shields. “Her Mother died in cryo when her family journeyed to their colony world.”

Tirak made a sympathetic noise, his mouth creasing in a Human-like grimace. “A tragedy, but it couldn’t happen on the Profit, believe me. Any disruption of the cryo system is instantly reported by the computer. The units even have an integral back-up system, capable of life-support in space in the event of a disaster. They can be launched automatically from the bridge, or manually from in here.” He pointed to the wall behind the units.

A very Human scream, long and drawn out, sounded from outside the open door.

Gun instantly in his hand, Kaid leaped past Tirak and was in the corridor before it stopped.

“False alarm, Captain.” Sheeowl’s voice on the ship’s comm echoed throughout the deck. “Was only Kate. She just met her first Cabbaran.”

In the center of the corridor, standing almost upright on its haunches, was indeed a Cabbaran. Kaid recognized it instantly from the description Captain Kishasayzar had given them. Kate stood facing the alien, her body frozen in horror.

“We have more passengers, Annuur.” Tirak spoke calmly to the Cabbaran. “Badly injured ones. That’s why the change in destination.”

As Annuur turned slowly to face them, Kaid understood Kate’s reaction. Standing just short of four feet tall, the being before him was unlike any he’d seen before. Obviously a quadruped, and certainly vegetarian, his long, yellow incisors were just visible behind an almost prehensile upper lip. Forward facing eyes regarded him steadily from beneath a narrow stiff crest of dark hair that ran the length of his skull and down his neck. The same hair was spread out in a ruff across his shoulders and again over his flanks. From the sides of his face, the sandy body fur had been shaved so that the intricately colored tattoos could be clearly seen.

The lip quivered and Kaid heard him begin to chitter. A flat, mechanical voice started to speak in U’Churian.

“Nourishment dispensers empty,” Annuur’s translator intoned. “Is breach of contract, Captain.”

“See to it, Sheeowl,” Tirak ordered the crew female hovering beside the stricken girl. “Take Kate to the mess first. My apologies, Annuur. As I said, we had injured to see to and needed to depart from Jalna rapidly. There was no need for you to leave avionics, you could have used the comm — or were you just curious about our guests?”

The ruff of fur across the Cabbaran’s shoulders bushed out for a moment before settling again. Annuur’s teeth made a clicking noise and his top lip curled expressively. A sharp burst of sound followed. The translator remained silent.

“Captain.” Nayash, the white dressing over his wounded thigh vivid against his long, black pelt, now stood where Kate and Sheeowl had been. He raised an arm and flung something through the air to Tirak who caught it deftly.

“You won’t need your weapon,” Tirak said quietly in an aside to Kaid as he stepped past him. “This is Annuur, leader of our Cabbaran navigation sept. All right, you opportunist,” he said, his tone becoming lighter. “One pack — and only one — to make up for your discomfort.” He held his hand, palm open, out toward the Cabbaran. In it lay a brightly decorated tubular container.

The mobile lip curled upward in disdain. “Your insult remains,” intoned the translator.

Tirak gestured to Kaid to join him. Holstering his gun, he did so.

“This is Kaid, the leader of our guests.”

The whiskers on either side of Annuur’s nose twitched as he leaned forward and sniffed audibly at Kaid. “One of those you kept in cryo.” He turned his attention back to Tirak, giving Kaid a clear view of the exotic tattoos.

The hand that reached out to take the Captain’s bribe was spatulate in shape, with four fingers tipped by broad, horny claws. Almost delicately, the fingers closed round the tube and removed it.

“Candy. A children’s treat back Home,” Tirak said softly to Kaid. “They can’t get enough of the stuff. Comes in useful now and then.”

Kaid noticed now that Annuur wore a multi-pocketed utility belt not unlike the one the Sholan Forces used, save that the Cabbaran’s was held in place by shoulder straps. It was into one of these pockets that Annuur placed his tube.

“Maybe talk later,” he said, lowering his upper body to the ground before sedately trotting past them and down the corridor to the main access elevator.

“Time we talked,” said Kaid, his voice grim. He wanted to know what Tirak had been doing with a mixed Leska pair not only on board his ship, but held in cryo until a couple of hours ago.

“The rest of your people are next door in the mess waiting for you,” said Tirak, gesturing in the same direction the Cabbaran had taken. “When you’re satisfied they’re safe, one of my crew will escort you to my office so we can talk.”

Remaining near the closed doorway, Kaid looked over at T’Chebbi. “Report,” he said, in the highland patois that they’d both grown up using.

“All rescued personnel save Zashou seem healthy but undernourished — want them checked up in sick-bay because of laalquoi levels in food they ate on Jalna. Younglings were waiting on Keiss for transport to Shola when were kidnapped by a Valtegan officer. Killed him, but cost them their captain and damaged the scouter. Were found by Ambassador Taira’s ship. Tirak rescued them from Taira at Tuushu Station — where we’re going. He put them in cryo while on Jalna to stop us contacting them telepathically.”

Kaid moved into the center of the room. Kate was about Carrie’s height, her pleasant round face framed by a mass of short mid-brown curls. The male, Taynar, was barely older than her. He’d obviously inherited the warm grey-brown pelt coloring of his family. “What did the Chemerians want?” he asked, though he could make bets on what the answer would be.

“Why should we tell you?” demanded Kate. “You’re one of them, a U’Churian.”

Kaid glanced at T’Chebbi who raised a sardonic eye ridge in reply.

“I haven’t told them,” she said, reverting to lowland Sholan like Kaid.

We’re Sholan, he sent to the girl and her Leska. Posing as U’Churians. We were sent to rescue you.

Taynar hissed his disbelief as Kaid joined them at the dining table. “Telepaths can’t fight.”

“He’s your bond-brother,” snapped T’Chebbi. “Show a Clan elder proper respect!”

“My bond-brother?” Taynar was startled into sitting up. “How? My sister died years ago!”

“So your father would have you believe,” said Kaid. “Khemu died only a few months ago, bonded to me. Our son lives on the Valsgarth estate. Like us, he’s a member of the En’Shalla Aldatan Clan now.”

“Your son? But how . . .”

“The Chemerians wanted a mixed Leska pair for themselves,” interrupted Kate. “Taira said he’d met Carrie and Kusac on the Khalossa.”

Kaid nodded. As he’d thought. Ambassador Taira had shown an unhealthy interest in his triad partners while on board the Khalossa. Opportunity had presented itself, and Taira was not one to let it slip by. “How did Tirak get involved?” He watched the female’s jaw tighten as she lifted her chin defiantly.

“I made him,” she said shortly, grey eyes flashing. “We thought they were Sholans at first.”

He raised his eye ridges in respect. “No wonder they were so wary of telepaths. I presume you gave them their mental blocks.”

“I was as much to blame as Kate,” interrupted Taynar sullenly. “He promised to return us to Shola. I thought it a fair price.”

Kaid ignored the challenge in the youth’s voice. Faced with few alternatives, they’d had little option but to agree to Tirak’s demand. “No one is faulting you,” he said. “You handled a difficult situation very well.” He turned his attention to the other side of the room where Rezac sat. This was his first real opportunity to meet the male who, despite being half his age, was his father.

They weren’t that alike, he thought, surveying the younger male. How could Jaisa have seen a resemblance? There were superficial similarities, true, but they were just that. They both had the distinctive broader and lower set ears of the highland Clans, and the brown pelt, but . . .

“Are you related?” asked Jo suddenly, looking from one to the other. “You look very alike.”

“Hardly,” snapped Rezac. “I’m from his far past! Fifteen hundred years ago to be exact.”

Kaid could feel T’Chebbi’s gaze burning into him as she waited for his answer. “Highland Clans always tended to breed among their own. It’s a possibility,” he said, trying to avoid her scathing look. He touched the edges of Rezac’s mind with his, instantly aware of the link between him and Jo. “You’ve formed a Triad,” he said, surprised, glancing back at the dark haired Human female.

Jo flushed and looked away.

“You know about these links?” Rezac’s antagonism was quiet for now in his desire to learn more.

“We have two mixed Leska triads back on the estate.”

“That’s why you can fight,” said Taynar. “I knew telepaths with a Human Leska were able to fight, but I hadn’t realized it affected the Triads as well.”

He was getting drawn in deeper than he wanted here, but there was no point in dodging the issue. A simple answer would do for now. “That’s so,” he admitted.

“With Carrie and Kusac?” asked Jo, concern in her voice. “How awful for you. You must be feeling pretty bad right now with both of them in cryo.”

“What are these triads?” demanded Rezac impatiently. “What causes them?”

“The bonds began forming after the Cataclysm for a mixture of reasons. For the better protection of small breeding groups of Talented, and because of Vartra’s work with genetics. You and Zashou were one of the original enhanced Leska pairs, so it’s not surprising you should form a Triad once you’d been exposed to Vartra’s modern virus.”

“Our Link is the result of Vartra’s work?” asked Jo.

“Not the original work Rezac was involved with,” said Kaid. “It’s due to his genetic manipulations after you were taken by the Valtegans.”

“You know, your talk is full of wrong-spoors,” said Rezac, an edge of ice in his voice. “You might fool your own people with all this speculation of what Vartra did, but I lived then. I knew him! How could he possibly have done anything that would link Human and Sholan DNA?”

A small, purring chuckle from Taynar broke the tension.

“I’ve just realized what it was about you that seemed familiar,” said the youth to Kaid. “You’re the Triad that went back to the times of Vartra, aren’t you? You met with the God. That’s why you’re En’Shalla.”

Rezac laughed out loud at this, but there was no humor in his laughter. “You expect me to believe that? Just because this isn’t my time doesn’t make me an idiot!”

Abruptly, Kaid got to his feet. He’d heard enough. There might be a blood tie between him and Rezac, but that was all. This male was as unlike him as anyone could be. What could he possibly have in common with this arrogant and undisciplined young male who had fathered him so very long ago?

“I was able to tell Vartra that you and Zashou were safe and alive in our time,” he said. “Zylisha was worried for her sister. The news put her mind at rest. You might tell Zashou that when you see her next. And that Vartra and her sister life-bonded.” He turned aside from the Sholan to look at the Human beside him. “Jo, I have to join Captain Tirak now. I’ll debrief you on your mission after I’ve spoken to him. You’re in charge till I return.” He gestured to T’Chebbi to join him as he began to walk toward the door.

A chair scraped on the floor. “I want to know what’s going on, too,” said Rezac, the belligerence back in full measure.

“You’ll remain here till I return,” Kaid said unequivocally, coming to a stop and turning to look at him. “The situation with Tirak is delicate and requires a knowledge of current Alliance politics.”

“I know a hell of a lot more about the Valtegans than you do!”

“That’s of no consequence at the moment. Your information is fifteen hundred years out of date, Rezac, and has nothing to do with this. Stay here with the other civilians.”

“Don’t order me about! I’ve as much right to be involved as you,” the young male snarled, tail lashing from side to side as he unconsciously lowered his body into a crouch.

T’Chebbi’s hand closed briefly on Kaid’s wrist. “I’ll stay,” she said quietly.

Kaid flicked an ear in reluctant agreement. “Sit down, Rezac,” he ordered. “You want my credentials? I’m in charge of this mission, and cleared by Sholan High Command for First Contact negotiations. You’re just another civilian as far as I’m concerned. T’Chebbi will stay with you.” He stalked over to the door, slapping his hand on the airlock mechanism. When it opened, he strode out into the corridor where Manesh, Tirak’s security officer, stood waiting for him.

T’Chebbi moved smoothly to block the door as it closed. “Suggest you relax, make some drinks, experiment with food, and get to know each other,” she said to the small group. “Ship not big, the quarters even smaller. Will take us two weeks to reach rendezvous. Better if we get on with each other.”

“And just who the hell are you to be taking over?” demanded Rezac, striding over to confront her.

“Sister T’Chebbi of the Brotherhood of Vartra, member of the En’Shalla Aldatan Clan,” she replied, keeping her tone even.

“A priestess,” he sneered. “You think you can stop me? Go ahead and use the gun, then!”

“Rezac,” said Jo warningly as he moved to push T’Chebbi aside. “That’s not a good idea. I told you things are different now. The Brotherhood is a Warrior elite, not just a religious Order. They’re specialist fighters. Kaid and T’Chebbi are Carrie and Kusac’s bodyguards. Friends. We can trust them. They came to rescue us, didn’t they?”

T’Chebbi watched him hesitate. “Art of warrior is to know when to fight,” she said quietly. “And whom. Not now, on alien vessel, with injured comrades. Are you a warrior, or just a fighter?”

As Kaid settled himself in the chair indicated, he watched Tirak pull the tab on the container he was holding.

“A hot drink,” Tirak said, offering it to him. “The one your colleague Carrie enjoyed in the inn. Didn’t think you’d want a fermented one yet.”

Kaid accepted it, tasting the beverage cautiously. Not too bad — a bit sweet for his taste, but drinkable, and certainly preferable to alcohol. Right now he needed the energy the sweetener in it would give him. He waited, sipping the drink, knowing Tirak’s first questions would tell him how much he knew, or had guessed, about them.

“So, what species do the two hairless females belong to? Human or Solnian?” the U’Churian asked after a moment or two. “And are your species dependant on each other? Do you come from the same world?”

“They’re Humans. Tell me, Captain, why is a military ship and its crew posing as traders in this sector?”

Tirak feigned surprise. “Posing? You have us wrong, Kaid. I’ll admit our craft is a decommissioned military one, but we are just what we seem, traders.”

Kaid shrugged, a very U’Churian gesture, and putting his drink down, got to his feet. “Thank you for your hospitality, Captain Tirak, but I think I should check in again on the Sholan female in your sick bay,” he said. “She was asleep when I was last there.”

“You can’t push me aside like that!” exclaimed Tirak, ears flicking forward. “I put myself and my crew on the line for you — Nayash was injured in the fight at the space port! I let your people come on board, fetch medical supplies for the injured females, let another of them join us — I deserve answers, dammit! I want to know what’s going on!”

Schooling his face into a look he knew the other would interpret as one of surprise and confusion, Kaid hesitated. “Going on? I know as much about what happened planet-side as you do, Captain Tirak. My people were caught up with yours when Bradogan attacked us.”

Tirak’s face froze. “Don’t take me for a fool, Kaid. You came here with members of two unknown alien species on a rescue mission. Kusac may look like us, but he’s no U’Churian — his link to the Human female proves he’s as Sholan as Taynar! Then there are the others in your little group! And I have severe doubts about which species you belong to, especially since you admitted to being his brother! Do I have to go on?”

“All you need to know is that we must rendezvous with an alien vessel at the Chemerian home world.”

“Alien to whom? Us? Or you Sholans? Don’t try my patience or you might find my hospitality is suddenly withdrawn,” Tirak snarled, baring his teeth. “Your position is far from strong. You have perhaps one able-bodied companion, the rest are civilians suffering from malnutrition and exhaustion.”

“Don’t threaten me,” said Kaid quietly. “I could take the information I want straight from your mind, despite the primitive blocks the younglings gave you. Instead I do you the courtesy of asking.”

Tirak’s low rumble of anger began to build. With an obvious effort, he remained seated as the mane of black hair rose around his face.

“Brawling like troopers is hardly appropriate for people of our rank,” Kaid said, his voice now deathly quiet. “First Contact is better left to the diplomats of the Rhijissoh when they reach Jalna, it’s too delicate a matter to be argued over with mere traders.” He turned and walked toward the door.

“Wait!” The growl was gone from Tirak’s voice and his hair had begun to settle around his shoulders again. “You say a ship goes to Jalna to make First Contact?”

“It’s not your concern, Captain,” said Kaid, keeping his back to the U’Churian as he rested his hand against the bulkhead. “By your own admission, you are, after all, only a trader.” He afforded him a glance over his shoulder.

“How do I know this isn’t another lie?”

Again Kaid shrugged. “Confirmation will be waiting at our rendezvous.”

Tirak’s snarl almost drowned his words. “May Kathan himself damn you! Drugs! That’s why we’re here! Because of an illegal drugs trade!”

Kaid had to widen his ears to catch the words within the snarled reply. He took a couple of paces back toward the desk and waited.

“Drugs that turn the users psychotic and violent for days after they’ve used them — drugs that only started appearing a few years ago.”

Kaid returned to his chair. “And you think the Chemerians are involved.”

“Some,” admitted Tirak. The knuckles on the hand that held his drink showed white through his pelt and the can had begun to buckle slightly. This was his only outward sign of anger now. “Your turn. Why were your people on Jalna?”

Kaid regarded him thoughtfully. What to tell him? His Triad was empowered to commence Contact negotiations if it proved necessary, so perhaps the truth was best. “Two Valtegan shuttles landed here several months ago. One crashed outside the port after dropping off an object, the other landed to sell four Sholans in exchange for supplies and spares. We sent a team, consisting of three Humans to locate the crashed vehicle and discover what it had left behind. They went missing. Our mission was to rescue not only them, but the original four Sholans.”

“The Valtegans.” Tirak sat back in his chair. “What’s your quarrel with them?”

“All life on two colony worlds wiped out,” said Kaid grimly, returning to his seat. “Millions of Sholans dead. We don’t know why, we don’t know how, and worst of all, we don’t know where they come from. We didn’t even know they existed until then.”

“Kate and Taynar said as much,” murmured Tirak. “We didn’t place much credence on it, though. Seems we were wrong.”

“With a weapon like that, they’re a threat to all species. That’s why we were following up the crashed vessel — in the hope we’d find something to give us a clue about where their home world is. They subjugated Keiss, the world the Humans had colonized, without destroying them, and used them as slaves, but the Valtegans we captured there died rather than communicate with us. They were ferocious warriors. It was literally kill or be killed with them. We destroyed them all, save for one ship.”

“The one that came to Jalna.”

Kaid inclined his head in an affirmative gesture. “We knew nothing about Jalna — or about the species who trade here — until the Chemerians told us the Valtegan ship had been sighted.”

Tirak began scratching his ear thoughtfully. “A Valtegan ship calls here every fifty years or so, but they come only to take samples of crops and food animals. One left just before this craft you mention arrived. What the Jalnians get in return, my people were unable to find out. The Chemerians have trading agreements with you?”

“More,” said Kaid, his tone reflecting his feelings toward their two-faced allies. “Treaties for our mutual defense that are several hundred years old. We represent an Alliance of five species.”

The U’Churian’s jaw fell open in shock. “By Kathan’s beard! The double-dealing . . .”

“Conniving, tree-climbing little bastards,” Kaid finished for him.

A slow grin split Tirak’s face. He leaned forward to edge Kaid’s abandoned drink closer to him. “As you say. Against you, their duplicity goes further than with us. We’ve only been dealing with them for about twenty years. The young couple, we found them on Tuushu Station. They had just discovered they were the prisoners, not the guests of Ambassador Taira Khebo and they — persuaded — us to rescue them.”

“So they told me. There are strict laws governing the use of telepathy among our kind and they broke them. You have my governments’ apology on their behalf.”

“Yet your people broke the same laws.” There was a hardness in Tirak’s voice.

“Sometimes it’s necessary for certain individuals to be empowered to operate outside the law.” Kaid’s voice was a gentle purr. “But you know that, don’t you — Captain?”

Tirak chose not to respond and Kaid knew he’d made his point.

“The Chemerians implied that beyond their own colonies, we were their only market,” the U’Churian continued instead.

“I suspect,” said Kaid, picking up his unfinished drink, “that we will discover some of our latest imports are goods obtained from Jalna and your — Free Traders Alliance?”

“Free Traders’ Council,” corrected the Captain, relaxing back into his chair. “Then we will have to draft trade agreements and more with this Sholan vessel.”

Kaid finished his drink and set the empty container down on the table between them. “I would say that negotiations have already started, wouldn’t you, Captain Tirak?”

“What family are you from?” ventured Taynar, looking over at Rezac. “I know you’re from the highlands like me.”

Rezac glowered at the youngling. He was still high on adrenalin from the fight at the spaceport, and worse: with his Leska mind-mate Zashou sedated in sick-bay, his link to Jo had reasserted itself, demanding their unfinished business be concluded. He was frustrated almost beyond endurance on both counts.

Jo’s hand closed on his arm. He’s only making conversation, trying to be friendly. He’s terrified, just like his Leska.

He clenched his hand into a fist, forcing his claws into the flesh of his palms in an effort not to respond to her touch. I know. I’m trying, dammit, but you know what’s wrong with me — with us! Unable to completely suppress it, a shudder of pleasure at her touch ran through him. “Dzaedoh,” he said through clenched teeth. “Likely you’ll not have heard of us.”

“Noni’s kin?” the youth said in surprise.

T’Chebbi moved over to sit opposite Rezac and Jo. “Link day?” she asked sympathetically. “Are rooms made ready for us through the door.” She jerked an ear to her right. “Go, take one now. See to your own needs. You put it off long enough.” When he hesitated, she added, “That’s an order, Warrior. I don’t need what you and your third are broadcasting, neither does anyone else.”

Relief flooded through him. He could see to their Link needs without feeling he was neglecting what he saw as his duty. It was good not to be the one with the final responsibility for once. He got to his feet, urging Jo to accompany him.

Giyesh was waiting in the corridor outside. She directed them to a cabin opposite the medic’s office. As the door closed behind them, Rezac relaxed the control he’d been fighting so hard to maintain. Reaching for Jo, he circled her waist with one arm, stroking the dark hair that crowned her head with his other hand. Breathing in her scent, he began to purr as their minds started to merge.

“Ah, you feel it too,” he whispered in her ear as his tongue gently rasped against her jawline. “After the battle, the need to pair with one you love, to know you are both still alive. Zashou despised that in me.”

“She’s not a Warrior,” Jo murmured, turning her face so their lips met, her fingers already beginning to unfasten the belt that held his tunic at the waist.

His tail flicked around her legs, holding them close against his. “You Humans are not so unlike us,” he purred.

With a start and a cry, Kaid woke, Carrie’s name on his lips as he sat bolt upright in bed. He shivered, chilled to the bone despite his sweat-soaked pelt.

T’Chebbi loomed over him with an extra blanket. “Bad dreams again?” she asked.

He took it gratefully, wrapping it round his shoulders for the time being. “More,” he said, clenching his teeth to stop them from chattering. He looked around the dimly lit cabin. “Where’s Giyesh?”

T’Chebbi shrugged. “Maybe still on duty.”

“I dreamed I was in cryo, and I could sense her there.”

“Carrie?” T’Chebbi sat down beside him, her nose creasing in worry as she flicked her long grey-brown plait over her shoulder. “That’s not possible. Cryo is a nothingness. Drugs make you sleep first, you don’t even feel the cold. Then you wake, and it’s over.”

He looked up, catching her gaze with his. “I was somewhere else, T’Chebbi, somewhere deadly cold — and she was there. I usually feel warmth from our crystal, but it’s been cold since we put her in cryo. Until now.” His hand emerged from the blanket, holding out the crystal he always wore. “Feel it.”

Leaning forward, she touched it gingerly with her forefinger. With an exclamation of shock, she pulled her hand sharply away.

He let the crystal fall back within the blanket, smiling wryly. “You felt it — too warm for just my body heat, isn’t it?”

“You told me Carrie sensed her mother dying in cryo. Is it possible that the Talented stay aware? That they don’t sleep?”

“Never heard of it happening. It could be a Human trait,” he replied.

She grunted. “What was the dream?”

“Only what I told you. Just being in this bitterly cold place and sensing Carrie and her fear. The sooner we get to Tuushu Station, the better. She’s terrified of cryo, T’Chebbi.”

“She’s safe asleep,” she said, her tone soothing as she touched his face briefly. “Can I get you anything? A hot drink? You should try to sleep again.”

“Nothing, thank you,” he said automatically, then hesitated. He wasn’t fooling either of them. “Join me. I’d like your company. Who’s on sentry duty in the mess?”

“Taynar and Kate. Slept long enough in cryo, they said. Tallis is on graveyard shift.”

“Should have left him on the Hkariyash,” he grumbled, glad to be dealing with more familiar issues as she slipped into the bed beside him. “He’s more trouble than all the others put together. He’s done nothing but complain since he came on board.” Pulling the blanket from his shoulders, he leaned over to drop it on the floor. T’Chebbi snagged it from him.

“We use this,” she said, spreading it over him. “You feel like you been in cryo. We can manage Tallis. His mind is sickened after what the Valtegans did to him. He needs help more than anything.”

He lay down, grateful for her warmth and company; it was helping dissipate the frozen images of his nightmare. As his shivering stopped, he could feel her soundless purr.

“You only had to ask if you wanted to join me,” he said awkwardly. “You have the right — you are my Companion.” He was finding it difficult to cope with his need for her company and the desire for Carrie’s he was walling away.

“Sleep,” she said, wrapping her arm across his chest and tucking her nose under his chin.

It had come as a shock to Jeran to find himself on Giyesh’s ship, almost as big a shock as it had to her, judging from her expression when they came face to face in the landing bay. Later, she’d managed to see him alone for long enough to arrange this meeting in the unused mess on the second deck. Sitting there at the main table, nursing a hot drink, he wondered why he’d come.

A shadow fell across the table and he looked up to see Giyesh standing in the doorway.

“I hoped you’d be here,” she said, closing the airlock door behind her.

“I hadn’t expected to see you again,” he said awkwardly.

“Neither had I.” She joined him at the table, sitting down opposite him. “This is rather embarrassing for both of us.”

He frowned. “Why? Only you and I know what happened that night.”

Giyesh looked away. “Not exactly,” she murmured. “The Captain overheard me talking to our medic.”

“Your medic?”

“We rescued the young ones, Taynar and Kate,” she said, her voice low. “Mrowbay thought he was an immature male. I told him likely he wasn’t.”

“You only came to spy on me?” He’d thought there had been more between them than that. A common attraction, a need for company that night at least.

“No! I came to talk to you, yes, to find out what I could about your people, but the rest . . . That was real.”

“So all your crew know about us? What did you do? Go into details? Tell them how desperate I was for female company?” he asked angrily.

“I said nothing to them, I swear I didn’t! Look, I didn’t have to tell you this,” she said defensively. “It was rather obvious that we’d slept with each other when I stayed away all night.”

“So now it’s my fault for keeping you with me?” He put his cup down with a thump.

“I didn’t say that,” she said, reaching out to touch his clenched hand. “I stayed with you because I wanted to, because you were so lonely.”

“I didn’t want your pity then, or now,” he growled, snatching his hand away. “And I didn’t need to be made a figure of fun among your crew. They must be laughing themselves sick every time they see me!”

“I didn’t mean it that way, Jeran, and they’re not laughing at you,” she said. “You don’t understand. Our ships, we’re all family, all related. It’s me the crew are laughing at, for getting caught by an alien. The Captain, my uncle, he’s mad at me!”

“Caught? How caught?” That surprised him, diverting his anger.

She shook her head, sending the mane of black hair swaying round her shoulders. “It’s not important,” she said. “But no one’s laughing at you, honestly.”

“I want to know. You’ve discussed personal matters about me with your medic, and your crew’s laughing at my expense too, whether you want to admit it or not. You owe me something in return.”

There was a hunted look in her eyes as she obviously searched for some answer to give him. “I’m of an age where I should have chosen a mate, but I haven’t,” she said finally.

He narrowed his eyes as he looked at her. She was being less than honest with him, he knew that. Not lying, but near to it. “I’m the first? Is that it?”

She pushed the chair back and got abruptly to her feet and headed for the exit. “Forget it, Jeran. It was a mistake meeting with you. I just didn’t want you thinking it was you the crew were laughing at.”

“Wait!” he said, leaping up to stop her. He caught up with her at the airlock, grasping her by the arm. “You’re not leaving without telling me why this is so amusing to your people.”

“You’re not U’Churian, and not a soldier,” she said.

“So what?”

“I told you. I was expected to choose my first partner and didn’t. Instead I asked to see the worlds outside our own, then I’d choose. This is my first mission.”

She was making no attempt to leave, even though she could probably get free quite easily. Releasing her arm, he reached for her mane of hair, taking hold of a lock that lay on her shoulder. “So why are we here? You didn’t get me to come here just to tell me this.”

“How would you know?” she countered, then stopped, blue eyes widening. “Unless you’re a telepath?”

“No, I’m not.” It was a mane, he realized, quite unlike Sholan hair. The night she’d come to him in the warehouse where he was imprisoned on Jalna, they’d talked, then one thing had rapidly led to another. They’d had no expectation of seeing each other again, so hadn’t wasted time on irrelevancies. Matters were slightly different now. She obviously wanted to see him again or she wouldn’t have suggested this meeting. He stood aside, gesturing to the table. “Stay for a little while. Tell me more about yourself and your people.”

Warily, she returned to the table, waiting till he sat down. “What do you want to know?”

“You say you’re all family on this ship. Are you all related, all soldiers?”

She nodded. “Our unit of the family lives on Home, but the largest one is on the Rryuk itself. We learned long ago during our civil wars that having Family in space meant your name would never die, no matter what happened on Home.”

He thought about this for a moment. “Who lives on the Rryuk? Just the soldiers?”

“No, everyone. Children too. How else could we be self-sustaining?”

“Space cities,” he murmured, watching her. He’d not realized just how blue her eyes seemed against her dark pelt. They matched her tunic. But then, the only light in the warehouse had come in from the space port outside through the small, reinforced window above the door. “How do you stop the inbreeding? We have a clan system similar to yours, but we’re free to bond with those outside our guild.”

“Guild?” She wrinkled her nose as she spoke.

“Professions, like your soldiers.”

“We can choose from the males on any of the Family’s ships, or even Home itself. There’s not just the Rryuks, but other lesser families who are allied to us and officially bear our name.”

“Are you training as a soldier now?”

She smiled, her sideways grin showing off her white teeth. He remembered her smile because the first time he’d seen it, he’d thought it a warning as it would have been with his people. “No, I was brought up as one. I began training as soon as I could walk. We females only stay home till we’ve had our first infant, then we go into service on one of the smaller craft till it’s time to breed again, if we wish.”

Breeding cycles, again very different. “But you chose not to do this.”

She nodded. “It angered my parents that I didn’t want to enrich the Family before taking service on the Profit, but the elders said I had leave to go if I wished.”

“And your uncle is one of the old-fashioned type, that’s why he’s angry with you for getting ‘caught’ by me. The others are amused because they’ve been around long enough to see the funny side.”

She nodded again, setting the silver colored ring in her right ear swaying.

“What’s Home like? With all those Families it must be pretty crowded.”

“Fairly. Lots of cities. When a male marries into the family, we add a room onto the settlement until there’s no more space, then a group start up a new settlement. We have a colony world now, and many younger people are setting up there rather than on Home or in space.”

“You marry for life then.” Her scent was bringing back more memories of their night together. Pairing with her had been like he imagined pairing with a feral would be — from her there’d been no inhibitions, no holding back. Surely she couldn’t mean he was her first lover?

“No, only for two or three seasons then we choose again. It makes sure there is always new blood in the family. What about your people? Do you have only one wife?”

“No. We take out bonding contracts for either three or five years if we wish to share our cubs,” he said. “Otherwise we have as many lovers as we wish. Our females can choose when they want to have cubs, they don’t have seasons, apart from their first.”

“Your way is quite different,” she said, her voice tailing off slightly. “Relationships outside our marriages aren’t tolerated.”

“What about between them, or before?” he asked, sliding across the intervening seat till he was sitting beside her. She wanted him, he could feel it, that’s why she’d suggested they meet here. The attraction between them was pure lust, nothing more — yet.

“Between is alright,” she said softly, turning to face him as he slid his arm across her shoulders, urging her closer. “But not before. That’s forbidden.”

“So you and I have broken quite a few rules between us.” His tongue flicked across her cheek while he traced a gentle finger down her throat, continuing over her tunic to her chest. He let his hand linger briefly on her small breasts before moving lower, coming to rest on her hip. Beneath her ship’s uniform, he could feel the braided cord that held up the loin cloth she wore. Everything about her excited him, from her exotic alien scent to the long, dark pelt that covered her body.

“Yes,” she said, but her voice was barely a whisper as she leaned against him. “I’d like to break them again, but not here.”

“Where then?” he asked, voice rough as he began to lick her ear.

“Two cabins up from here, there’s an empty guest one. If I go first,” she said, holding his face as her lips touched his, “and you follow in a minute . . . It has a privacy lock.”

He returned the kiss purposefully, his teeth catching gently at her lip as reluctantly, he released her. “Go now, before I get too carried away. I won’t be far behind you.”

Father Lijou sat with Guardian Dhaika in the other’s lounge at Vartra’s Retreat. They were drinking c’shar. The years had been kind to the elderly Sholan, he thought, watching the spring afternoon sun catch the reddish glints that still showed in the other’s dark hair and pelt.

“You seriously believe that it’s Brynne Stevens’ Triad we want, not Kaid’s?”

Lijou tried to ignore the tone of stark incredulity in Dhaika’s voice. “I do. I’ve thought it since Kaid returned to Stronghold after seeing Vartra here.” He had the satisfaction of seeing the faint gathering of Dhaika’s eye ridges that betrayed his discomfort at being reminded of the incident.

“That was unexpected. Did Kaid ever say what it was the God wanted?”

“No, but the change in him was marked. It would appear that in the end, Vartra’s will corresponds to Ghyakulla’s. As I said, I believe Noni is wrong. Brynne Stevens will be the Human bound to our world with his Triad, not Carrie Aldatan.”

“Brynne’s lack of cooperation over that Derwent character isn’t exactly conducive to trust in such a delicate matter as unity between our species,” murmured Dhaika. “He’s not what I’d call the epitome of a well-adjusted Human within a mixed Leska relationship.”

“The Gods choose whom They want, Dhaika, you know that. They see into a person’s soul. With all our Talents, that’s beyond us.”

“I know that.” The slightly acerbic tone was moderated immediately. “So what is it you’re suggesting?”

Lijou extended the claws on his right hand and gently tapped the arm of his chair. “Noni has a blind spot where Kaid is concerned. She’s letting what she wants to happen blind her to other possibilities. I think it’s time we — pursued — more viable options.”

“I’m as unhappy with the way she tracks downwind of the Council of Guardians as you are, but to actually work against her . . .”

“Not against her,” corrected Lijou. “For Shola, Dhaika. Look at it this way. The Aldatan En’Shalla Triad is the motivating force behind the changes on our world. They’ve had to fight for their freedom, and it’s been hard won. They can’t change what they are, become people of peace, tied into the land, raising cubs. For one, the military won’t let them. We need — Ghyakulla needs — a Triad that will do that. In Vanna Kyjishi and Garras Janagu, we have that. Look at the way they’ve both settled into managing the Clan and estate while Kusac and Carrie are away. Physician Kyjishi’s expecting a second cub, Garras’ this time. And Brynne has calmed down too. None of those tempestuous relationships with other females any more — in fact, apart from their Link days, he’s been celibate. Not only is he studying how to use his Talent at the Shrine, but since he had that vision from Ghyakulla, he’s become more interested in the religious side. He’s really Brotherhood priestly material, Dhaika. We should encourage this. We’d be fools not to. Think of it as listening to the Goddess rather than as working against Noni.”

“I hear you, but you haven’t convinced me.”

Lijou leaned forward and helped himself to one of the tiny savory pastries on the low table in front of him. He knew better: Dhaika would take very little more convincing. He was all but his now. “Shall we agree that if he comes to either of us and asks for further instruction, then it’s a clear sign that Ghyakulla has called him?” He popped the tidbit in his mouth.

Dhaika regarded him thoughtfully before replying. “If he comes of his own free will, then I will tutor him in the ways of the Goddess, and Her consort, Vartra. You’ve just been newly appointed as a Guardian, Lijou, so understand me well when I say I have no wish to Challenge Noni or the other females on our Council . . .”

“Nor have I,” interrupted Lijou. “I’m as aware as you that as two of the only three males, we’re outnumbered before we begin. But I am weary of the fact that in every level of our society there are political factions that serve only to advance their own view of how things should be. Free debate has been stifled for too long. We’ve become trapped in a quagmire of our own making, Dhaika, and we must break free if we’re to keep the superiority we now hold within the Alliance. I can’t help but feel there are desperate times ahead of us.”

The Guardian stirred in his seat. “I thought matters had improved since Esken’s power had been broken.”

“They have, and even more so since he retired three weeks ago, but we need to evolve, Dhaika! As a society, we’ve been stagnant for too long. Growth and change are what we need, even if that change cuts us like a polar wind! But it’s not just that that concerns me. We’ve still got the threat of the Valtegans hanging over our heads.”

Dhaika sighed, reaching for his drink. “Fear has always been an unpleasant bedfellow. No news of the escaped Valtegan?”

“Kezule? None. A sustained search of the Taykui Forest margins has turned up nothing, now they’re spreading the net further. General Raiban would like to hold us at Stronghold responsible, but her people were on duty that night.” He didn’t want to get drawn further into this discussion. The media weren’t aware of the escape of Kezule and Keeza Lassah, the Sholan female incarcerated with him as a spy. That there were two psychopaths loose in their continent’s major game forest was a circumstance that deeply humiliated both the Brotherhood and the Forces. He made an effort to return to the original discussion.

“About Brynne Stevens,” he began.

“I have said that if he comes to either of us of his own free will, with no prompting, then I will train him as our Order dictates,” interrupted Dhaika.

“Even in dream walking?” He pushed his point home.

“Yes, even that — if I believe Ghyakulla has called him!”

Lijou let his breath out in a gentle huff. “Thank you, Dhaika. All I’m asking is that we don’t close our eyes to what could be in front of us.”

“Maybe you’re right,” said Dhaika. “My position here as Guardian is to ensure that those called to the Brotherhood by Vartra or His Companion, Ghyakulla, receive the proper religious instruction in our mysteries. It’s time Ghyakulla was allowed to call those She chooses, regardless of our esteemed matriarchs’ personal wishes and their perceived political implications.”

Lijou could hear a touch of acerbic enthusiasm creeping into Dhaika’s voice. At last! It had been an uphill struggle convincing the older male. Though he could see to the normal instruction of their Order, the advanced religious studies were Dhaika’s provenance, and that included dream-walking. He was only just beginning to realize how much more he had to learn about that psychic art.

He inclined his head in agreement, as much to hide the small smile as to show respect for the other. “You’re absolutely right, Guardian Dhaika. It’s time for us to listen to the deities once more.”

Like a silent shadow, Ashay padded alongside Quin as they made their way through the spaceport gates toward the hotel. Though the heavy fighting was over, it was still not safe for either of the two Humans on Jalna to walk alone through the spaceport area. Ashay was the perfect escort. No one in their right mind would argue with a Sumaan. Six feet tall to the shoulder, plus another foot for the mobile neck and its attached head, the reptilian Sumaan were formidable mercenaries. Heavily muscled hind legs and a tail almost as thick as his torso gave Ashay a bulkiness that belied his agility, speed and immense strength. As they passed through the check-point, the young Sumaan’s neck curved downward, bringing his head on a level with the guard’s. Lips pulled back from the tombstone teeth as he smiled his greeting.

Catching the guard’s shudder as the youngster passed through, Quin smiled to himself. He could understand the Jalnian’s reaction. He’d felt the same until he’d gotten to know Captain Kishasayzar and his crew.

There had been a lot of rapid changes, he noted as he approached the inner fenced area where the hotel and the tower that had been Lord Bradogan’s stood. The guards waved them through without challenging them: the crew of the Hkariyash were well known to Tarolyn’s men by now.

Port workers were still piling rubbish from the deceased Lord’s dwelling onto the smouldering bonfire in front of the tower. Its acrid smoke coiled lazily up into the heat-blanched sky. Everyone had known what kind of man Bradogan was, but the new Port Lord hadn’t been prepared for the sight that met his eyes in the basement cells. Treating several of Bradogan’s prisoners had been beyond Jalna’s primitive medical skills and Tarolyn had needed to ask for help from those species still berthed in the port. He’d then refused to enter the keep again until it had been gutted and all trace of its former owner erased.

It was the two Humans who’d been able to offer the most aid as they were physiologically closest to the Jalnians. Quin had just come from checking on their patients at the makeshift infirmary that had been set up in one of the warehouses. As well as those who had been subjected to Bradogan’s idea of hospitality, several Jalnians were being treated for energy weapon burns and a variety of sword and knife wounds sustained during the pitched battle in the port the day before.

Tarolyn, flanked by his faithful bodyguards, was holding court in the main foyer of the ehotel. Seeing Quin enter, he dismissed the assorted crowd of alien traders and their Jalnian agents that had been clamoring for his attention, and gestured him to approach. As the traders and agents moved aside, Quin could see Conrad sitting at the end of Tarolyn’s table. Like himself, he’d reverted to using the black fatigues that were the Humans’ Warrior Guild uniform.

“Get him a seat,” the Lord ordered one of his guards as the Human approached. “And a drink for them both,” he added to Conrad. “The heat outside is enough to scorch even the Sumaan’s hide. How are your patients today, Quin?”

“Improving,” Quin said, taking off the black baseball-like cap that protected his balding head from the sun. Gratefully he accepted the glasses of water that his colleague slid across the table to him. He handed the first to Ashay, who then ambled off to sit with the guards, and drained the second himself. “Another couple of days and all but five of them will be able to go home. I’d like the physician on the Rhijissoh to examine three of those, though. Their medics have more sophisticated equipment than us and will be able to analyze your species so we know exactly what drugs we can use. All I can do at the moment is make them as comfortable as possible.” He’d already decided not to mention that at least one was unlikely to survive the day.

Railin Tarolyn narrowed his eyes as he listened to Quin. “So why didn’t your Sholan friends wait for this ship?”

“Carrie was too badly injured, Lord Tarolyn,” began Conrad.

“I asked him,” Railin interrupted, continuing to look at Quin as he took the proffered chair and sat down opposite the lord.

“It’s exactly as he said. Her injuries were so severe that the Rhijissoh couldn’t have dealt with her properly. They scanned her on the Profit and we now know the bullet is lodged against her spine. On its way in, the bullet hit one of her ribs and splinters of bone have caused tissue and organ damage. The Rhijissoh simply doesn’t have the specialized surgical facilities necessary for operating on a Human so badly injured. If she’d been Sholan,” he shrugged. “Far better to stabilize her in the Profit cryo facilities, then get her to the rendezvous ship as quickly as possible.”

Railin grunted. “Let me know how she fares. What of the Sholan woman that lost her child?”

“Zashou’s comfortable. They’re building her strength up with Sholan protein drinks until they’re sure the poison from the Jalnian food is out of her system,” said Quin, refilling his glass from a jug on the table.

“A tragedy,” said Railin. “But the child was better dead than living so malformed. I had not thought it possible that the poison in our soil could do that. But she’s young, there’s plenty time for more children. I’ve decided to leave security matters at the port as they are for now. People know where they are, know what to expect. Better to make my changes gradually, there’ll be chaos otherwise. How long before this ship of yours arrives?”

“Another three days,” said Conrad. “When they do, they’ll be sending down a Contact team in a shuttle. I’ve been asked to request quarters for them close by your own.”

“They can stay in a suite of rooms here,” said Railin, pulling his pipe and smoking herb from his belt pouch. He glanced up at Conrad. “Who are they coming to talk to? Us, or our alien customers?”

“All those species who want to talk to them,” said Quin. “Including yourselves.”

Railin tamped the tobacco down in the pipe bowl with the end of his small belt knife. As he reached for his flint box, Conrad pulled a lighter from his pocket and flicked it, letting it burn for a moment before handing it to Railin.

“Please keep it,” he said as the Lord turned the object thoughtfully over in his hand before igniting his tobacco with it.

So begins their throw-away society, sent Quin.

No need to be so cynical, replied Conrad.

“Thank you,” Railin said, placing it on the table beside his tobacco pouch. “An interesting little toy.”

“We’ve many more like this in the Alliance,” said Conrad quietly. And before you jump down my throat, I’ve been authorized to give him a few . . . inducements.

“Yesterday, you and Quin offered to bring me some supplies from Galrayn in your scouter. I think we’d all eat more easily if we know the food is uncontaminated. I’ve had a list prepared for you.” Railin slid the piece of parchment across the table toward Quin. “It may mean two trips, but I think you’d agree fresh meat and vegetables are worth the time it’ll take. And if you could also bring my cook,” his genial face lit up at the thought, “then I can promise you a meal second to none.”

Conrad looked across at Quin. “Sounds fine to me.” Turning back to Railin, he said, “I’ve been authorized to let you have a communications device for your estate, to enable you to speak instantly with your steward from anywhere on Jalna. The Alliance negotiators know it’s vital that you remain in touch with your people for the duration of their visit, and are prepared to do what they can to facilitate this.”

Railin puffed gently on his pipe, releasing a small cloud of aromatic smoke. “Very good of them, considering they need me more than I need them. What makes this Alliance of yours so sure that the other species will want them here?”

“I’m afraid I can’t comment on that, Lord Tarolyn,” said Conrad. “We’re not actually part of the negotiating team. We’ve merely been asked to remain here to act as envoys for them. But I will say that two of the Alliance species already trade here — the Chemerians and the Sumaan.”

“You have everyone at a disadvantage for the time being, Lord Tarolyn,” said Quin, picking his words carefully. “But may I respectfully suggest that you tread carefully and don’t overplay your hand? If you make demands that could be considered unreasonable, then there is nothing to stop the traders combining to build a space station.”

The new Port Lord raised a bushy eyebrow. “I think not. I may be just a dirt-sider to you, but I’ve some idea of the cost of such an undertaking, in people and time if not money.”

He’s sharp, no doubt about that, sent Quin. Nobody’s fool. “With four more species to divide the cost among them, I don’t think that’s going to be a major consideration. What you really want is help with the environment, isn’t it? You want your people free of this madness that comes from the land. Bradogan played on it, used it to his advantage to control the goods coming onto Jalna.”

Railin narrowed his eyes. “I want it understood that Jalnians are not violent by nature. The cause of it is our poisoned soil and not all of us are tainted by it. With help, those who are can be freed. We could then take our rightful place in space with the rest of you.”

“You have one major point in your favor,” said Conrad. “The Sholans, who are the senior partner in the Alliance, have no love for the Chemerians, and it was the Chemerians who branded you as an unstable species. The Sholan government may well be prepared to back your request for aid with both the Free Traders and the Alliance to pay back the Chemerians for witholding information concerning the existence of the Free Traders.”

“And the Chemerians?” asked Railin.

“Will say nothing, having been exposed as untrustworthy to both the Free Traders and the Alliance by having kept silent about the existence of both groups.”

“I only want what is right and fair for my people. The technology you all possess would help us rise above what we are and become more. It isn’t as if we have nothing to offer in return.”

“You have your location for one,” murmured Quin.


“Jump points are rare,” explained Conrad. “That’s why Jalna is so important to the Free Traders. It’s a point where they can most easily converge for trade. It’s a little further for the Alliance, but still economically viable, I would think.”

“For people not concerned with negotiating, your words are very much to the point, and in our favor,” murmured Railin. “Why?”

“You’re not so dissimilar from us,” said Conrad, shifting in his chair. “Our friends’ time as Killian’s guests reminded us of the basics of life — a safe place to live, good food, and our health.” If the Jalnians are accepted, he sent to Quin, it advances Earth’s arguments to become full Alliance members rather than associates.

“Talking of which,” said Railin, looking toward the foyer desk. “I see that damned manager is standing around doing nothing. It’s past midday, time we had something substantial to eat and drink. You can tell me about this communications device of yours before you leave for Galrayn.”

Naira and Zsyzoi were on the inland detail, working their way outward toward the margins of the Taykui Forest where they’d meet up with their opposite numbers. The cold wind ruffled Naira’s hair, making him shiver.

“We’re not going to find him,” he muttered to his sword-sister. “He’s long gone by now — and he knows our world.”

“Only the desert area near Chezy and the Kysubi plains, and they’ve changed a hell of a lot since his day,” said Zsyzoi quietly, edging forward slowly as she scanned her surroundings through the IR visor. “We have to keep looking. Now shut up, I can hear you complain anytime.”

“How’d he get out anyway? You manage to pick up any gossip yet?”

“Naira, be quiet! At this rate, they’ll hear us long before we hear them,” she hissed angrily before coming to an abrupt stop and rounding on him. “Or is that the point of all your chatter?”

“Of course not!” he replied, stung by her accusation. “How could you . . .”

A dark shape launched itself toward them from the branch of a nearby tree. They separated, one to either side, diving for cover as the creature leaped beyond them, landing deep in the undergrowth.

Zsyzoi was already on her feet, tracking its passage as it headed deeper into the forest. She let out a string of expletives as she relaxed and began to brush the debris from the forest floor off her clothing and pelt. “Another four-legger,” she said with disgust.

“Are you sure?” Naira asked, scrambling to his feet and peering in the direction of the still swaying vegetation.

“Sure,” she confirmed. “Only the ferals move like that, we can’t. Come on, we still got another four hours before we’re through for the night.”

She suppressed her elation as she crashed through the ground cover, heading deeper into the night. She might have escaped the hunters this time, but they’d surprised her, cut her off from her den and forced her to move on before she was ready. Speed was what she needed now, to put distance between them and her. Running till she could go no further, she collapsed to the ground, sides heaving, gasping for air.

Gradually her breathing slowed and the ache in her lungs eased. In its wake came the dull, dragging ache of her injuries. Whimpering, she curled up in herself, hugging her belly and straining to lick at the still-weeping slashes on her flank.

They were deep, and the fluid they wept was bitter, making her feel sick and light-headed again. Only hunger had driven her from the safety of her den in the first place. It was a miracle she’d managed to escape the hunters at all in her weakened condition.

She had to keep moving, find shelter and food before morning left her exposed to the light. Still whimpering softly, she uncurled and staggered to her feet.

On board the Rryuk’s Profit, a level on one of the cryo units fluctuated. The computer registered it, initiating a first-level diagnostic check on the system.

On Shola, Brynne stirred in his sleep, muttering incoherently before settling again to dream of moonlit forests.

In Vartra’s temple at Stronghold, Lijou crumbled the incense into the brazier on the God’s right. His mind was wandering, and not, for once, fully on his task. He was thinking of Kaid, what it must have been like for him to go back in time and meet the God, Vartra in the flesh.

“Disbelief,” said a voice in his ear as a strong grip closed on his forearm. “The first time is always the worst,” it continued conversationally.

Around him, the temple seemed to darken and swirl. Lijou made a mewling noise and tried to pull back.

“So you’re the new Guardian. And Tallinu’s mentor.”

Lijou was suddenly very afraid. The hand grasping his arm was real; the claws were sharp and beginning to prick into his flesh. It was none of the Brothers, he knew the smell of each one and all he could smell now was the scent of the Nung tree. He peered through the dim flickering light at the figure beside him but the face was hidden in deep shadow.

“Who are you?” he asked, hearing the tremor in his voice.

A gentle laugh. “You shouldn’t need to ask,” the voice chided. “How could I neglect you, the head of the En’Shalla Order? I have work for you, Father Lijou. I see your esteemed matriarchs neglected to tell you that participating in the ritual of dream-walking made it possible for me to reach you easily.”

Half an hour later, Lijou stumbled from the temple, blinking rapidly in the brighter lights of the entrance hall. The night watch were at his side instantly only to be dispatched by him for his co-Guild Master. Instead they sent for L’Seuli, who fetched Master Rhyaz.

“He gave you this?” asked Rhyaz. Stunned, he stood looking at the metal disc L’Seuli had put into his palm.

“Yes, Master,” said L’Seuli. “I recognized it immediately.”

“Take me to him.”

When they stopped outside the watch ready room, Rhyaz looked again at the coin in his hand. “Tell me once more how he said he got it.”

“He said the God gave it to him. How did he get the Brotherhood Sigil, Master Rhyaz?”

“I hope I’m about to find out, L’Seuli,” Rhyaz answered as he placed his hand on the door, ready to push it open. “I keep this in the safe. No one has access to it but me. It’s the original sigil, minted when our Order was founded.”

Razor’s Edge Excerpt by on


Rezac lunged past the alien for the floor of the stasis cube base unit, trying to reach a pistol that lay there. The alien reached out and stopped him.

No, don’t. He’ll have us killed before you reach it. You’re weak from being inside that cube. You both nearly died. Wait for now.

Shocked not only by the sending from the stranger, but by his sudden weakness, Rezac let himself be pulled back till he sat on the ground by his Leska.

“Search then bind them. Bring them up to the Lesser hall,” ordered the one in charge.

One at a time, Kris and Davies were taken from the small chamber, searched for weapons, then bound. There were cries of delight when a gun was found on the latter. Then Jo’s turn came.

“Hey, this one’s a woman!” yelled the guard searching her.

Jo struggled in the grasp of her captor as he began to search for her again, an ugly leer on his face.

“What’s a woman doing with a bunch of thieves? One of them your master, eh?”

“Leave me alone!” said Jo, pulling frantically away from his grasping hands.

Help came from an unexpected quarter — Zashou. With a rumble of anger that quickly rose to a growl, she pushed their guard aside and leapt into the corridor. Her lips pulled back from her teeth revealing large canines as she loomed protectively over the smaller Human female.

Jo felt a stab of pain as her mental shields were ruthlessly penetrated by Rezac and her mind quickly read. Then he was gone, leaving her confused and even more terrified.

“Leave her! Or lose your life!” said Zashou in halting Jalnian. Her claws were extended, the deadly talons curved toward the guard.

Jo was suddenly released as the man stepped back in fear, fumbling for the crossbow slung on his back.

The two holding Kris and Davies instantly came forward, quarrels pointed directly at Zashou and Jo.

“Enough! Turn round with your hands behind your backs,” ordered the lead one.

We must comply. They will kill us otherwise, came the quick mental command from Zashou. The two females did as they were ordered.

Rezac was another matter. Realizing his Leska was being bound was enough for him. With an ear-splitting roar, he emerged from the room at full tilt, looking for someone to attack. What would have been a blood bath ended abruptly as the lead guard stepped to one side, allowing the enraged Sholan to run past before hitting him soundly on the back of the head with his crossbow stock. Rezac fell like a stone.

By the time they’d been dragged through the great hall and up the stone steps to the Lord’s private hall, Rezac, held securely by two burly guardsmen, was beginning to come round.

“Untie our guests,” ordered Lord Killian, lifting his arm to allow his attendant to continue stripping off his padded body armor.

“Excuse the harsh welcome, but I didn’t want you leaving before we’d time to get better acquainted.”

At the sound of the voice, Rezac raised his head just enough to peer through the hair that fell over his face at the speaker. A growl began to build low in his throat as he tugged at his bonds.

“May I suggest you reassure your large friends they’re in no danger. I’d prefer not to have to shoot them to preserve the lives of myself and my men.” As the protective jacket was slipped from his chest, he indicated the half dozen crossbowmen ranged at the top of the stairwell down to the main hall.

“I understand you,” growled Rezac, lifting his head fully and shaking it till his mane of hair was cleared from his face. It settled like a dark cloud around his shoulders. “Release me, then we will listen to you.”

Killian gestured to the guards and Rezac’s bonds were cut. Pulling his arms forward, he ripped the remaining ropes free and massaged his wrists.

“I’m Lord Killian. Please, be seated,” the burly man said, gesturing to the large wooden table that dominated the center of the room.

As Rezac moved toward the far end of the table, he glanced round the room, quickly assessing its exits.

Opposite the opening for the stairs was a fireplace in which burned a generous log fire. There were two large windows, paned with small rectangles of thick glass. The other four, spaced along the outer wall, were mere narrow arrow slits covered by wooden shutters. Two doors flanked by tied back curtains led off from either side of the fireplace. Against the third wall, the one with the arrow slits, a similar curtain was closed. Even as he looked at it, the lower edge flared outward. Probably a third door, Rezac surmised. One to the outside.

Facing the stairwell, its back to the fire, was a large, ornately carved high-backed chair. Obviously Killian’s seat.

As Rezac sat down, he saw the Human female begin to move too, the others following her. She was their leader then. Strange that it wasn’t one of the males. Quickly he searched through the information he’d taken from her downstairs. There was more than he’d realized at the time — too much to make sense of yet.

Later, sent Zashou. Let’s focus on now.

Rezac turned to look more closely at their three Human companions. The differences between them and the Jalnians were subtle. He only noticed them because he’d touched the female’s mind. They were newly into space, these Humans, and by their own endeavors. Far more advanced than the Jalnians. Their skin had a slightly different cast to it, and their bodies moved differently, hinting at a different musculature and possibly skeleton beneath the flesh.

Movement by Lord Killian drew his attention away from them and he watched the large male as he walked round the table to take up his seat. Placing hands almost as big as Rezac’s own on the table, Killian looked at them all in turn.

“Time for you to introduce yourselves,” he said, his voice deceptively mild. “Perhaps even to tell me why you’re here.”

Jo tried not to glance at her two male companions before she began to speak. “I’m afraid you’ve made a mistake, Lord Killian. We’re nothing more than thieves . . . ” Her voice tailed off into silence as the guard Killian gestured to approached the table and spilled on it the bundle of possessions taken from them during the search.

“I think not,” said Killian, picking up the energy pistol lying in the midst of the pile. “This doesn’t belong on Jalna.”

He fiddled with the weapon for a moment or two then pointed it at Davies who was sitting opposite him.

“Don’t point it at me, it’s got a hair trigger!” he exclaimed, visibly blanching. “It’ll discharge at the slightest pressure!”

Killian turned the gun on its side and studied it again before replacing it on the table. “Indeed. Then let’s hope I don’t have to use it on any of you. We were discussing your names and why you’d come to my castle.”

Jo had let out an angry exclamation at the sight of the pistol, and now it was no longer threatening him, Davies glanced over at her.

“Sorry, Jo,” he muttered. “I know I shouldn’t have brought it.”

“So you’re called Jo, and you’re the leader. Now we’re getting somewhere,” said Killian, sitting back in his chair and clasping his hands across his stomach. “Please continue.”

Rezac could sense his satisfaction.

Jo indicated them each in turn. “Davies, Kris, Zashou and Rezac.” She hesitated before continuing and Rezac could feel her uncertainty, then her acceptance that there was nothing to be gained from lying when the truth was obvious. “We aren’t from Jalna. We came to find out what was on the crashed scouter.”

“Not to rescue these furred ones?”

“Sholans,” Jo corrected him. “We didn’t know they were in the stasis cube.”

“What is stasis cube?” Killian copied the Human words carefully.

“The cube you brought here. Inside it, time was frozen for our friends. In stasis.”


In his mind, Rezac echoed the word. So that’s what had happened to them! The last he remembered was them running from the Valtegan palace guards.

The lab! We ran into a laboratory! sent Zashou. The cube must have been there!

Later, replied Rezac, refocussing on the audible conversation. It’s difficult enough to follow them without getting side-tracked.

“A person in a stasis cube has no idea of the passing of time,” said Kris, looking to Rezac and Zashou for confirmation.

Rezac flicked an ear in assent.

“For them, when they’re released, it’s as if nothing has happened. Rezac and Zashou have also been moved. They’re no longer where they were when they were imprisoned in the cube.”

Killian reached up to scratch at his beard. “How long were they in this cube?”

Rezac was suddenly aware of Jo’s compassion for them and her reluctance to say more. She looked at them before answering. “We think one thousand and five hundred years,” she said quietly.

Rezac’s ears flattened in shock and briefly the room began to fade around him. How long? He could hardly comprehend what she’d said.

“A long time,” said Killian, his voice slightly faint at the concept of that many years. “I presume your enemies placed you there. You must be formidable warriors indeed if that was the only way to remove you. Who were your enemies?”

“A species called the Valtegans,” Jo replied. “They trade at the Spaceport occasionally.”

Zashou’s sudden despair swept through Rezac. It was all for nothing! We failed!

Enough! Rezac’s mental tone was harsh.

Killian shook his head. “Never heard of them. No matter. What were you hoping to find on this crashed vehicle? Weapons?”

“Information,” said Jo. “Information about the Valtegans — where they come from, what they left behind on Jalna, where they were going.”

“And did you find this information?”

“Ah.” Again Jo looked over at Rezac. “Partly.”

“Obviously you found out what they left,” said Killian, gesturing toward the two Sholans. “But the rest?”

“No,” said Kris. “We found nothing. The craft was too badly damaged.”

“There were no bodies. How can such a vehicle move with no one to drive it?”

“Remotes,” said Rezac. “From a distance,” he added, realizing how inadequate the Jalnian language was to explain technical matters.

Thoughtfully, Killian sat back in his chair and began stroking his beard while his eyes flicked from one to the other of them. “Now, I presume, you wish to return to the Spaceport and leave Jalna for your own worlds.”

“That was the general idea,” said Davies, speaking for the first time.

“Unfortunately that won’t be possible,” said Killian, his tone regretful. “Another blizzard is due tonight and the pass will be blocked by morning. I’m afraid you’ll have to accept my hospitality until the weather improves.”

He’s lying, Kris sent to Jo.

We can’t prove it, Rezac replied.

The only outward sign of both Kris and Jo’s surprise at Rezac joining the conversation was a slight tensing of their bodies.

Good, thought Rezac to himself. At least they’re skilled in concealment.

Jo’s reply, when it came, was slower and fainter. What do we do, then?

Go along with him for now. We have no other options yet, Rezac replied while sending a private thought to Kris.

Later, the Human replied.

“In return for my hospitality, perhaps you can help me,” said Killian, oblivious to their mental exchange.

“In what way?” asked Kris.

“Bradogan, who rules the Spaceport and its surrounding lands, is hungry for power. Those Lords he can’t ally to himself with bribes of off-world goods, he wages war on. It’s only a matter of time till his eyes fall on Kaladar. I want an edge, something to keep him away from my lands. Something like this weapon here.” He indicated the pistol. “You could help me by making more of them.”

“Those weapons are highly sophisticated, Lord Killian,” said Kris. “They require manufacturing methods not available on Jalna. We couldn’t make them for you, even if we knew how.”

Killian raised an eyebrow quizzically.

“We know how to use them, but we don’t know how to make them,” said Jo.

“You know how they work, you can make them.” Killian’s voice had grown cold.

“You misunderstand us, Lord,” said Kris. He pointed to one of the guardsmen behind them. “They can use their crossbows, but could they make one?”

“You misunderstand me. You will provide me with off-world weapons,” said Killian uncompromisingly. “If not that one, then others that fulfill a similar purpose.”

He pushed himself to his feet. “Escort my guests to their chambers,” he ordered his guards. “Think about it overnight. I’m sure you’ll see the wisdom of mutual cooperation. We’ll talk again in the morning.”

They were escorted through the curtained doorway out onto an external balcony. The air was bitter as it blew fresh flurries of snow into their faces. Dressed as they were, he could feel the cold hit Zashou and he moved closer to her, holding an arm out in invitation to her to share his warmth.

He felt her mental retreat as she shied physically back from him. Only a step, but it was enough. Their long sleep hadn’t changed anything, then, he thought with a sigh.

Are they going to lock us in some dungeon? asked Jo, trying to control the chattering of her teeth. Maybe he wasn’t lying about the blizzard after all!

I don’t think he’ll put us in a dungeon tonight, sent Kris. Likely it’ll be somewhere comfortable. He’s reminding us how cold it is to persuade us that cooperation is worthwhile. If we don’t, then tomorrow it’ll be the dungeons.

I agree, sent Rezac.

The two males proved to be right. The rooms they were shown to were in a small tower set near the center of the castle. A suite for visiting dignitaries, or noble prisoners.

The main chamber boasted a fire almost as large as that in Killian’s private quarters. Opening off it were two smaller bedrooms, both of which had beds hung with heavy drapes and fires burning in the grates. There was also a small closet that served as a privy. In the larger, a pile of blankets and three pallets lay next to the fire.

Once their escort had left, a search of the suite showed that the exit was guarded. The windows were shuttered but in any case they were too far above ground level to make escape through them a practical proposition at this time.

In front of the main fire, the table was set with food and wine.

“Ever get the feeling you were expected?” asked Davies, strolling over to the food and helping himself to a piece of meat from some type of fowl.

“We weren’t betrayed,” said Jo shortly.

Rezac turned to his Leska. “You should eat, Zashou. It’s been a long time since our last meal.”

She flicked an ear in reply and headed slowly for one of the dining chairs by the fire. He could feel her tiredness affecting him.

“You, too,” he said, looking at the remaining two Humans. “We must all keep our strength up. No telling when or where our next meal will come from.” As he turned toward the table, he felt a hand on his arm. Abruptly he turned back, teeth partially bared in a snarl.

Jo didn’t flinch, but she did release him very slowly. “We’re allies of Shola,” she said in his language. “They brought us here undercover to examine the Valtegan scouter. There are another four Sholans imprisoned on Jalna. We have to work together, Rezac.”

He turned away from her and continued over to the table. Lifting the flimsy knife, he began trying to hack some meat from the cold joint in the center.

“You’ve been to Shola?”

“Yes, briefly,” replied Jo.


“Valsgarth Telepath Guild and the Warrior Guild in Nazule .”

“What about Ranz, in the plains?” He sensed Kris joining him at the table.

“Don’t you mean in the Dzahai mountains? I’ve been to Vartra’s Retreat too.”

Startled, Rezac looked round. “Vartra’s Retreat? So he did go to the temple at Stronghold after all.”

“The temple at Valsgarth is the main one now, but yes, there’s a temple of Vartra at Stronghold too.”

“Temple?” asked Zashou, looking up at Jo and Kris. “What has Vartra to do with temples?”

Rezac watched the two Humans exchange glances.

“You’ve a helluva lot of catching up to do,” observed Davies sitting down. “In the Shola we know, Vartra is the major god of warriors and telepaths. He was responsible for saving them from the cataclysm.” He reached out for another piece of meat.

“He was a person? You knew him?” Jo sat down opposite Zashou.

Shocked once more to the core, Rezac let the knife fall from his grasp and sat down heavily. “A god? How?”

“It seems we’ve outlived ourselves,” said Zashou. “You were right the first time, Rezac: let’s eat. We can talk of these matters later, when we’re stronger.” They can’t tell us much if they were only there briefly.

“I lived there for over six months, Zashou,” said Kris, taking the seat next to Jo.

“You can hear us mind-speak to each other?” demanded Rezac.

Kris smiled. “We Terrans have one or two Talents of our own. That’s why I was living on Shola.”

A small chirrup of sound drew Rezac’s gaze to Kris’ jacket pocket. From its depths out popped a white furred face, muzzle and ears tipped with brown, large eyes glancing rapidly round the assembled faces. A trill of pleasure as it saw Jo, and a sniff of disdain at the two Sholans, and Scamp emerged. Scrambling up Kris’ arm to his neck, he raised his front paws to pat his face then leapt down to the table to run to Jo.

“A jegget!” exclaimed Zashou. “You brought a jegget with you?”

Rezac began to laugh. “You’ve got more than talents if you can befriend a jegget!” Now he knew they came from Shola — and more: as the only other telepathic species on their world, no jegget would go near a person they didn’t trust. In fact, the little creatures were notorious for that. Get a nest of jeggets in your barn, and you’d never get rid of them! They knew when you were coming, knew where your traps were.

Scamp, meanwhile, was twining himself and his dark-tipped bushy tail round Jo’s neck, chirruping and purring for all he was worth.

Aware of his pet’s feelings, and a large part of the reason for them, Kris glanced over at Rezac.

Please, say nothing. The Valtegans ruled Jo’s world, using females like her for sex. I need her trust. If she realized what I feel for her . . .

Rezac cut him short with an affirmative gesture. It’s not my business.

Reassured all was well with Jo, Scamp returned to Kris, looking and sniffing hopefully in the direction of the meat.

“Feed him,” said Rezac, gesturing at the plate as feelings of ravenous hunger stole into their minds. She doesn’t sense him. Why not?

Jo is only a latent telepath. She chooses not to train her talent. She’s a linguist — she studies languages and was responsible for compiling the first Valtegan lexicon.

So the Valtegans are still at large.

There are no Valtegans on Shola. Your people came across them on our first colony world, Keiss. They rescued the colonists — Jo was one of them. We don’t know where the Valtegans are now, or what they’re doing, that’s why we’re on Jalna. That’s how we found you.

Rezac, later, sent Zashou. Catching up is not important. Eating and sleeping is, so is deciding what to do about Killian and the weapons he wants.

You’re right.

“How did you avoid Scamp being found when we were searched?” Zashou asked Kris as she tore off a lump of bread from the loaf and handed the rest to Jo.

Kris grinned as he pushed some small pieces of meat to one side for Scamp. “I suggested to the guard that he didn’t really want to touch me. Strangely enough, he agreed.”

“They’ll find out soon enough,” warned Davies.

“I don’t think they’ll care,” said Kris.

“You said you’d trained at a warrior guild. We had something similar in our time, but it taught you to fight unarmed and with traditional bladed weapons.”

“Now it also teaches you in the use of modern energy weapons. I can strip and maintain most Sholan weapons with the best of them, but build one from scratch?” He shook his head. “Davies is the electronics genius.”

Rezac looked at him. “Could you build a weapon?”

“Depends what they’ve got here from the shuttle. The good Lord Killian had the craft stripped of just about everything that might have been useful, and naturally, they didn’t know what they were doing!”

“What kind of vessel was it?”

“A scouter. Space to ground vehicle.”

“From a Valtegan warship?”

“Is there any other kind?” asked Jo wryly.

Rezac grinned slightly. “No. Then the scouter will be armed. It will have its own weapons system. We could dismantle and use that.”

“Should we be even thinking of giving them a weapon at all?” asked Zashou. “I’m sure they’ve discovered enough efficient ways of killing each other on their own.”

“We haven’t a choice,” said Kris. “You heard Killian.”

“Besides, it doesn’t have to work for long,” said Davies. “Just long enough for us to get out of this place!”

“Fuel sources alone will limit its life,” agreed Rezac. “Unless I’m mistaken, there should be a backup battery that stores energy for it to use.”

“You know a fair bit about the Valtegans, don’t you?” said Jo.

“Should do. We were prized pets of theirs for a year,” growled Rezac, the grin vanishing.

“You mentioned a palace. What palace?”

“The Emperor’s. God-King of the Four Realms.” He tried, but couldn’t control his hate and anger at what they’d suffered during their captivity.

Zashou winced. “Rezac,” she said warningly. “He’s dust now, they all are. Let the rage go.”

With an effort, Rezac pushed the anger to the back of his mind and refocussed on the business in hand.

“That was fifteen hundred years ago, though,” said Davies. “How much use is that knowledge to us now?”

“How much can a people change in that time?” Jo asked Rezac.

“Valtegans, not at all,” he said shortly.

“You seem much the same as your modern counterparts,” said Kris. “I imagine the basic Valtegan species traits will have remained unchanged too.”

“Well, you’ll be able to tell, won’t you?” said Rezac, aware his tone was somewhat snappish but unable to stop himself.

“I was sent on this mission because I understand the Valtegans more than anyone else at present,” said Jo. “Your knowledge is invaluable. Will you both share it with me?”

“If it’ll help, of course,” said Zashou, glancing angrily at her Leska.

“Assuming this shuttle is military and has a weapons system on board, then we’ll need to look for it, with no guarantee that the Jalnians haven’t ripped it apart,” said Kris. “That should buy us some time at least.”

“Agreed,” said Rezac. “However, it will be bolted into the structure of the vehicle and I doubt the Jalnians would have been able to work those panels loose.”

“Were your people in space when the Valtegans arrived?” asked Davies.

“Only just. They arrived without warning and in such vast numbers that there was little we could do to fight them.”

“So how come you know so much about their spacecraft?”

“I don’t, but I was communicating with those of our people who were on warships in space.”

Zashou leaned forward to touch Davies on the arm. “On Shola, Telepaths were hunted by the Valtegans as live trophies and kept to show how important a person was. Anyone of high standing had a Sholan Telepath as a pet,” she said quietly. “That was the crux of their downfall. It took time, but eventually there were enough of us on the four Valtegan home worlds and in their galactic fleet to strike. It was we who coordinated the communications between the ships and the worlds — the slave worlds too. We gave the order to strike.”

“To fight?” asked Davies. “You’re supposed to be unable to fight!”

Zashou shook her head. “Rezac can, for a short time, then the nausea gets to him too. But I didn’t mean that way. The non-telepath slaves and the other species, they fought. What we had done was to subvert the Valtegan’s minds, cause them to doubt one another, Challenge for position — and more. We used our abilities to destroy them, weaken them for the civil war that followed. We turned Valtegan against Valtegan. So we know them, know their weaknesses — and their strengths.” She shuddered briefly at the memories, still fresh for them, and sat back.

“Did you say the Valtegans had four home worlds?” asked Jo.

“Yes, plus some three other slave worlds.”

She moaned quietly. “Four worlds full of Valtegans! There’s no way we can possibly win against them!”

“We thought that, but you say Shola’s free of them now,” said Rezac. “It wasn’t how many we killed, it was who we killed. Take out the bridge crew of a warship, barricade the doors and within minutes you can crash that ship into the rest of that fleet and all for the loss of one person.”

“That’s suicide on a mass scale!”

Rezac looked calmly at Jo. “Yes, it was, and it was the price we all, us included, expected and were willing to pay.”

“You communicated over interplanetary space?” Kris asked quietly.

“Were we not answered by telepaths from Shola?” asked Rezac. “The skill has obviously lived on.”

“Those who answered you weren’t exactly Sholan telepaths,” said Jo.

Rezac frowned. “Of course they were. Who else could it have been? Not Humans — the minds were Sholan.”

“They would seem so,” said Kris. “The one who answered you was Human, a Human female with a Sholan Leska.”


Jo shook her head. “No. He’s telling you the truth. There are several Sholans with Human Leska partners now, but Carrie and Kusac Aldatan were the first.”

“Aldatan?” said Zashou. “That’s my family name! But how . . .”

“Vartra,” said Rezac. “His tinkering with our genes led to that. Your sister must have been enhanced too.”

“Sister?” asked Jo.

“My sister Zylisha was Vartra’s companion when we were taken by the Valtegans,” said Zashou. “The enhanced genes must have passed on to their children. Vartra did what he originally set out to do.”

“He did more than that from the sound of it,” said Davies dryly. “Carrie and Kusac would have had a child had she not lost it. Another mixed Leska pair were expecting one when we left Shola.”

“Cubs,” said Zashou faintly. “Human and Sholan cubs.”

“No wonder he’s achieved godhood!” said Rezac. “Maybe Shanka had the right of it after all. Without Vartra playing god with our lives, none of this would have happened.”

“Leave Shanka out of this, Rezac! Just remember, when I offered you the serum, you chose to take it! You could have refused.”

Rezac snorted angrily. “What good would it have done? Once you’d taken it, we were all going to catch it.”

“What does it matter now anyway! It’s history — ancient history!”

At that moment, a knock came at the door. It opened to admit an obviously self-important man dressed long robes followed by a peasant woman carrying a large pile of clothing.

“I am Durvan, in charge of the smooth running of Lord Killian’s house,” he said, gesturing the woman to follow him as he approached their table. “My master has asked me to bring you these clothes. He insists that you wear them as he doesn’t want to advertise the fact that he’s, shall we say, entertaining off-world visitors.” His mouth split into a too-cheery smile that showed off his teeth.

Rezac began to growl low in his throat.

Humanoids show their teeth when they smile, sent Kris. It isn’t threatening — usually. In his case, I’d make an exception.

“Put them down on a chair,” Durvan said sharply to the woman as he strolled over to Jo, eyes roving across her face and those parts of her anatomy he could see. “The red dress I think for this lady,” he said, holding his hand out for the garment.

Hurriedly the peasant pulled the dress from the pile and handed it to him.

Taking it from her, he advanced on Jo, ready to hold it against her.

Kris rose to his feet in front of him. “I’ll take that,” he said, reaching out for the garment.

Durvan frowned but handed it over. “I was merely going to hold it against her to see if it suited her coloring.” He stepped back and looked around the little group. “I was told there were two ladies. Where is the other?”

“Just leave the clothes,” said Kris. “We’re capable of working out who should wear what ourselves.”

“I’m sure you are,” said Durvan. “However, the servant will remain to show the ladies how the dresses are fastened.”

“We can manage ourselves,” said Jo.

Still angry, Rezac decided to put an end to the intrusion. Slowly he stood up, stretched his arms and flexed his claws. “I think you should leave,” he said, his voice a low rumble that carried to every part of the room. “We’re tired and wish to sleep.”

Durvan had begun to back away from the table as soon as the Sholan moved. The servant fled with a squeal of terror. Realizing he was alone, the steward beat a hasty retreat. “Should you need help, ask the guard,” he said before closing the door behind him.

Rezac reached for the clothing and began sorting through it. A dress of blue he handed to Zashou, the rest he put over the backs of the nearest chairs.

“Help yourselves,” he said. “They’re all robes such as that character was wearing. Nothing practical I’m afraid, but at least they’re warm, which is more than can be said for what we’re wearing.” He looked down at his own clothing then over at Zashou.

Both of them were dressed in garments that offered very little in the way of either covering or warmth. Rezac’s consisted of a brightly colored woven belt from which hung two short panels of the same patterned material; one larger one in front, the one over his rear partially split to accommodate his tail. It most closely resembled a loin cloth. From both ears hung gold rings, and round his wrists were broad bracelets inset with jewel-colored enameling.

Zashou was similarly clad, but her garments included a short tabard top, and her earrings were larger.

“What favored Valtegan drone slaves wear at the Emperor’s court,” said Rezac.

“Drones? They have drones?” asked Jo, getting up to look at her dress properly.

“Who do you think does all the domestic work? You know their females are feral, don’t you? They keep very few females because of that. Once they’ve mated, they’ll fight off any other male that comes near them until they’ve laid that clutch of eggs. The drones are the only ones who can get near them most of the time,” said Rezac.

Jo looked at him. “You’re serious, aren’t you? I’d figured they were egg layers, but they have such a high sex drive that I’d assumed females were common.”

“The males have a high sex drive because they need a high incentive to mate. Without the control collars on the females, the males would be ripped to shreds even approaching a female let alone trying to mate with one. They are seriously feral. Mindless eating and laying machines that have to be separated from their eggs just before they hatch or they’d eat them too.”

“So that’s why they put those damned pleasure cities on Keiss,” said Davies as he reached out to pick up the green robe. “They need to direct that sex drive elsewhere. On Keiss, it was our women in Geshader and Tashkerra.”

“That’s what they use the females of the slave races and some drones for,” agreed Rezac, then he felt the sudden flare of fear mixed with pain and revulsion that came from Jo. It was gone almost immediately.

“Excuse me,” she said, dropping the dress and heading for one of the bedrooms.

Rezac looked to Kris for an explanation.

“Look, guys,” said Davies, drawing their attention. “It wasn’t for me to say before, and still isn’t, but I think you should know that Jo did undercover work with Elise, Carrie’s twin, in one of the pleasure cities. I wouldn’t have had the guts to do what they did with the Valtegan officers to get information for our movement. When Elise got caught and tortured to death, it hit Jo very hard.”

“Yet she tries to understand these . . . creatures,” said Zashou.

“Hey, it’s her way of coping with it,” said Davies. “I know how you feel about her, Kris, just go easy, hear me? She still has nightmares about those damned lizards pawing her. If you wouldn’t mind, Zashou, it might help if you went to her. Another female, that kind of thing. We males just can’t imagine what it was like for her.”

“I can,” said Rezac grimly. “Zashou . . .?”

“I’ll go,” she said, getting to her feet. “Perhaps it might be better if she spent the night with me.”

Kris looked at Rezac. “If you wouldn’t mind, just for tonight?”

Rezac nodded briefly, keeping his personal feelings under control. Tonight only, Zashou. Do not shame me in front of these people. We are Leskas.

I know only too well what we are. Nothing has changed, Rezac. We will share the room, but not the bed, she replied as she made her way into the room where Jo had fled.

“I suggest for tonight we use the other room,” said Kris. “Tomorrow we can see if Jo is willing for us to share the larger room with her, then you two can have the smaller one. I think we should avoid leaving Jo alone if possible. The Jalnian attitude to females is archaic to say the least and she’s too easily mistaken for one of them.”


Landing the aircar immediately in front of the Valsgarth estate house, Kaid powered down the engine then took a moment to rest his head on his forearms. Kusac’s voice from the rear of the craft roused him.

“Kaid, would you carry Kashini in for us?”

He pushed himself away from the consol. He was deadly tired; all he wanted to do was sleep. “Coming.” Getting up, through the side window he caught sight of the small group of people waiting impatiently on the doorstep. “You’ve got a welcoming committee.”

As he bent down to take the newborn infant from Carrie’s arms, Kusac put a restraining hand on his arm. “Kaid, everyone’s going to want to debrief us on what we saw in the Margins. I think your origin should remain your business; it should be your decision whether or not to reveal it.”

Surprised, Kaid looked at him. Kusac flicked an ear then tightened his grip briefly on his friend’s arm before releasing him.

“I would prefer it to remain unknown,” Kaid agreed as he took the sleeping cub from Carrie.

Kusac, Carrie cradled in his arms, was the first to leave the craft, Kaid and their cub followed behind.

Rhyasha was at her son’s side instantly. “Thank Vartra you’re all safe!” she said. “We’ve been so afraid for you!” She leaned forward to touch Carrie’s cheek. “Are you all right, cub? Yes, you are: I can feel it. Kusac, let your father carry her upstairs. You look as exhausted as she is!”

Kusac looked across at his father. “I can manage, thank you,” he said, holding Carrie a little closer, ears dipping in acknowledgement of Konis’ more reserved concern.

“Let him be, Rhyasha,” Konis said. “They’re a family now. Of course he wants to carry the mother of his cub into their home! I was just the same when you gave birth to him!”

Kusac started walking up the steps, his mother still beside him as his father fell in step with Kaid.

Noni’s here, she sent. She and Vanna — exchanged opinions!

Noni? But she doesn’t travel for anyone!

She’s here none the less. She says not only does she want to see to the cub as Carrie requested, but that Kaid needs her attention too.

He does. His hand was injured again.

I’ll see Noni, sent Carrie, resting her hand on her bond-mother’s arm. Rhyasha, go and look at Kashini. She’s so beautiful!

I will! Again the fleeting touch for both of them, then, with a smile, his mother went to Kaid and her husband’s side.

Noni was waiting for them upstairs in the lounge adjacent to their bedroom. She raised her hand in a negative gesture before either Kusac or Carrie could speak. “A lucky guess,” she said. “Not all of life is visions and portents! Now, young Human. Who do you want — me, or your physician?”

“You, Noni,” said Carrie, smiling tiredly, “but let Vanna come too.”

“Hmpf! I hope you’re not too tired for our arguments then,” she grumbled, following them into the bedroom. She looked over at Kaid. “You’re next, so don’t bother leaving the suite.”

At the side of the bed, a crib now stood and it was in this that Kaid placed the still sleeping cub. From where she’d been laid on the bed, Carrie reached out to stop him leaving. “What can I say but thank you,” she said, gently squeezing his hand.

Mumbling an appropriate reply, Kaid escaped to the lounge as quickly as he could. There he found Dzaka waiting for him. They stood looking at each other for a moment then Kaid took hold of his son by the shoulders, and pulled him close.

“Thank Vartra you’re safe,” said Dzaka as they embraced. “When I heard you were at Chezy, with Fyak and Ghezu . . . ”

“Fyak’s dead,” said Kaid, letting him go and moving over to the nearest chair. Gratefully he sank down into it. “The tribes executed him and Vraiyou.” His voice took on a hard edge. “Ghezu I killed myself. That nightmare is over for both of us.” He closed his eyes, resting his head against the back of the seat, aware now of the tension in his neck and shoulders.

“The Gods be praised,” his son said with feeling. “Do you want to sleep now or eat first?”

Kaid opened his eyes. “Eat. We could all do with food. And c’shar for me, coffee for them.”

“I’ll get it.”

“Tell Vanna that Carrie’s asked her to join them,” Kaid called out after him.

Dzaka stopped in the doorway. “Diplomatic of her. Did you hear Noni and Vanna had a heated discussion over who would treat Carrie and the cub?”

“No, I didn’t. I pity our physician.”

“Don’t.” Dzaka’s mouth opened in a grin. “Vanna held her own.”

Kaid sat back, closing his eyes again. He woke with a start a few minutes later as someone touched his knee. Still groggy, before him he saw a smaller version of Rhyasha –golden-pelted like her mother, the young female’s blond hair fell below her shoulders in a mass of unbound waves.

“You’re Kaid, Dzaka’s father, aren’t you?” she asked.

He nodded, memory beginning to return as he recognized her.

“I’m Kitra, his Companion,” she said. “We haven’t been properly introduced because last time you came back, you’d been ill. I think we should meet now, before Dzaka decides you’re too ill again.” She offered him her hand, palm uppermost.

Totally nonplussed, Kaid reached out to touch fingertips with her. “Well met, Liegena Kitra,” he said.

She wrinkled her nose at him. “You don’t call my brother or Carrie by their titles,” she said. “I don’t think you should use mine either, since we’re sort of connected.”

“If that’s what you wish, Kitra,” he said, just succeeding in hiding a grin. “Is there something I can do for you?” He watched as she headed for a nearby footstool and brought it over beside his chair.

“No. I just wanted to meet you formally,” she said, settling herself on it and leaning against him. “Now I can come and talk to you whenever I want. We can get to know each other.”

Dzaka returned carrying a tray loaded with cut meats, bread and cheese as well as a jug each of c’shar and coffee. “I see Kitra’s keeping you company,” he said, carefully placing it down on the low table beside his father.

“Yes. You should have introduced us earlier, Dzaka,” he said. “It isn’t every day my son finds a Companion.”

Dzaka frowned as he held a couple of the plates out. “But you know her! She’s Kusac’s sister.”

“You didn’t introduce her as your Companion though,” Kaid chided him gently.

“Ah. You’re right,” he said, tail swaying slightly with embarrassment. “Sorry, Kitra.”

The door from the bedroom opened and Kusac came through. He smelled the food immediately. “Is there enough for all of us?” he asked, pulling over another chair.

“For you and Kaid, yes. The Clan Leader intends to bring something more suitable up for the Liegena as soon as she’s allowed to,” said Dzaka. “I’ve a message for you from T’Chebbi, Father. She says that General Raiban and Father Lijou wish full reports from you at the earliest possible moment. She told them that you were all suffering from exhaustion and minor injuries and that you’d need to see your physician first. She said you’d not be likely to have the reports ready before the end of the week at the earliest.”

“Vartra bless her!” said Kaid with feeling as he reached for the c’shar jug.

“She’s held everyone together since you disappeared,” said Dzaka quietly.

“A female of hidden talents,” murmured Kusac.

Kaid glanced over at him. “That’s why I chose her. T’Chebbi never pushes herself forward, but she’s a more than able member of the Brotherhood.”

“Of the En’Shalla Brothers,” Kusac reminded him. “We bought our freedom — and theirs — in the Fire Margins, Kaid.”

The riding beasts had shied away as General Kezule was been brought to the tethering line: his scent scared them. It was good to know some things hadn’t changed even if the Sholans were no longer the docile slaves of his day.

While two of his captors held the beast, one of the males had mounted then reached down for him. With his hands bound behind him, he couldn’t assist even had he wanted to. They had to thrust him up to the rider.

The beast danced unhappily from side to side, terrified at having the scent of an alien predator so close to its nostrils. He was thrown against its neck, the boney nodules on its spine pressing into his chest uncomfortably. The rider hauled on the reins, pulling its head up as the two on the ground got a better grip on the halter. Once it was still again, a rope was passed round his waist then the beast’s neck, tethering him in place.

Their leader, the one wearing the broad bracelet that controlled his slave collar, mounted one of the other waiting creatures. There were twelve of them, and all but his rider were heavily armed. They were taking no chances with him. That was his only comforting thought — that they considered him a formidable enemy even in captivity.

With a single cry of command, the group began to move. As his rider took hold of the cord binding his wrists, the beast was given its head. Once again he was flung forward against its neck, this time violently enough to wind him.

The ride was unpleasant. Bounced continually not only against the creature’s painful spine, but also from side to side, it wasn’t long before he began to feel extremely queasy. By the time they arrived at the rendezvous over an hour later, he was in no state to make a bid for freedom even if the opportunity had presented itself.

It seemed an age before they hauled him down and he felt firm ground under his feet again. He staggered and would have fallen had he not stumbled into one of the tribe’s males. The sudden strong alien scent was the last straw, and as he was grabbed by the wrists and hauled upright, he began to retch. Doubling over, he was unable to stop his stomach expelling its contents all over the sand.

“What’s wrong with him?” he heard a voice demand. “Is he ill?”

“He’s not used to land beasts,” came the laughing reply as, still retching, he was thrust forward.

“When he’s done, Lieutenant, give him some water and take him to the medical unit. They’re expecting him.”

“Aye, General Raiban.”

Now rid of what little had been in his stomach, the spasms began to ease and he was able to straighten up. Still shaking, he was temporarily beyond embarrassment. His bonds were cut and he slowly pulled his arms round in front of him, then metal cuffs were snapped round his wrists. A canteen was handed to him. He could smell the water and took it gratefully.

“Does he understand Sholan?”

“Oh, yes,” was the reply. “He spoke to Fyak. He was Kezule!”

“So you’re the god, are you?”

He drank deeply, already feeling better, before even looking at the speaker. He’d recognized the scent as female. They still hadn’t learned to keep their females decently locked in the breeding room then. He considered not replying, on insisting that he speak only to a male, then decided on a safer option instead.

“I only speak to Commander.” He hated their language almost as much as he hated them.

“I am the commander,” was the soft reply. “I’m General Raiban.”

He closed his eyes as the canteen was taken from him, trying to force himself not to react, not to let them see his revulsion at the presence of the female: it would be seen by them as a weakness.

“I am General Kezule,” he admitted, opening his eyes.

“Well come to the future, General. I think you’ll find it somewhat different from the Shola you so recently left behind.” She turned abruptly away from him and began to walk toward one of the larger vehicles accompanied by three of the desert males.

A tug on his arm brought his attention back to his immediate situation.

“You’ve an appointment with the physician,” said the trooper, leading him toward one of the larger tents. Two armed guards followed close behind.

Here the indignities to his person started. His hands were released, and when, scenting yet another female present, he refused to remove his clothing for the medical examination, they held him and forcibly stripped him. He was dragged to a table and held there prone while they prodded and poked at him until they were satisfied he had no broken bones or internal injuries.

Released and allowed to get to his feet, his clothes were held out to him by the female. He snatched them from her, his crest rising and his tongue flicking out in anger.

“How dare you treat me like this! Don’t you know who I am?” he demanded of the nearest male guard. “Not even the basest criminal is exposed to females and not only do you let this one see me naked, but you allow her to touch me!”

With one backhanded blow of his arm, he sent the female flying across the room till she collided with a metal cabinet. “Get her stinking body away from me!” he roared.

The room exploded into activity. He was instantly grabbed by the guards as the physician ran to the side of the unconscious female.

He struggled against them, this time using what he could muster of his full strength. Then he felt the coldness of a gun muzzle at the base of his neck and froze.

“That’s better,” a voice purred in his ear. “I wouldn’t kill you, but a stunner shot right here would be excruciating, don’t you think?”

“Get a stretcher in here on the double!” the physician was shouting. “I want the theater ready immediately, we’ve got a fractured skull here!” He paused to look up at Kezule. “Take that tree-climbing bastard out of here! There’s nothing wrong with him an execution wouldn’t cure!”

He was dragged out of the tent into the sunlight then across the site to the vehicle where their commander had gone.

“What is it, Myule?” Raiban asked her aide, not bothering to look up from her comm.

“Lieutenant Naada, General. There’s been an incident involving the Valtegan captive.”

“What happened?” she demanded, her attention instantly on the Lieutenant.

“One of the medics. Rashou Vrenga. The general hit her. It’s serious, I’m afraid, General Raiban.”

“Hit her? What d’you mean hit her? What the hell was she doing in there in the first place?”

“She’s one of the on-duty staff, I imagine, General,” Naada said, taken aback by her question. “The physician thinks her skull’s fractured. She’s been rushed to the theater.”

“Of all the incompetent, idiotic . . .” She stopped, obviously remembering herself. “Why weren’t my orders that no female personnel were to be allowed near him carried out?” she demanded coldly as she got to her feet.

“I’ve no idea, General Raiban,” Naada stammered, taking a step backward. “I wasn’t aware of the orders myself.” The General’s temper was legendary and he was not enjoying being this close to it.

“Where’s Kezule now?”

“Outside your office, General. They’d finished the medical before he attacked the medic,” he added.

“Bring him in, then when he’s been escorted to the brig, you will find out who’s responsible for not implementing my orders. By Vartra, I’ll have the hide of the person responsible for this!”

“Yes, General Raiban,” he said.

“Myule!” she called. “Myule, I want to be kept informed of the condition of Medic Rashou Vrenga,” she said when her aide appeared. “I don’t care what I’m doing, you keep me updated. You heard what’s happened?”

Myule nodded.

“See that those on duty in the brig are aware that no female personnel are to be allowed near the area while we have Kezule on board — in fact, clear that section for the next half hour!”

“Yes, General.”

“Bring in your prisoner, Lieutenant,” she ordered. “I’ll see him now.

Eyes still hurting from the rapid changes in light, he stood blinking in front her. Owlishly he watched her get to her feet.

“Where are his clothes?” she demanded. “I ordered him examined, not brought here naked!”

One of his guards held them out to her.

“I don’t want his damned clothing! Take the general to the brig and let him dress himself! See he’s fed and given whatever it is he drinks.” She turned her attention back to him. “General, I apologize for the indignity you’ve suffered. It won’t happen again, I assure you,” she said with stiff formality. “However, while you are our guest, I expect you to refrain from lashing out at my staff. Medical personnel are not warriors; in any conflict, they are recognized by both sides as neutral. I hope I’ve made myself clear.”

He said nothing. What was there to say? Every time he was brought into the company of these females, they insulted him. Worse; he, one of the Emperor’s Faithful, had let his disgust overcome his senses. He’d made a tactical error in letting them realize just how much the presence of their females angered him.

She made a gesture of dismissal and the guards pulled him away.

“General Raiban, what do we feed him?” he heard her aide ask her as they left the room.

“How the hell should I know! The data from High Command should be through by now. That’s your job, Myule, not mine!”

As he was led through the echoing corridors to the detention area, he realized that he was on no military atmospheric vehicle. This craft was space going as well. He could feel his fear glands begin to tighten and fought to control them. The Sholans were capable of reading his scent messages and he would be damned before he’d let them know he was afraid.

So it hadn’t been the hairless female’s species who had found the Sholans as he’d surmised. It had been the Sholans themselves who had advanced to this technological level. Obviously his own kind had never returned to reclaim this world. Why not? The Empire had desperately needed the raw materials this system had to offer. What could have happened to prevent them returning?

They knew his kind, though, and in this time, but they were obviously not a current worry of theirs. What did they want from him? What could he know that would be of use to them after all these years? If they found what they wanted, it would mean his end — ripped to shreds by an angry mob such as had dealt with Fyak and his companion in the desert before they left. There was no real difference between the sharpness of the Sholans’ teeth and claws and the ferocity of Valtegan females at mating time.

Again he felt his fear gland muscles tighten but this time he was unable to prevent them emitting their tell-tale scent. He tensed himself, waiting for the inevitability of their attack on him.

“By Vartra, he stinks!” said one of the troopers. “Another like the Touibans! Pity he doesn’t smell as pleasant!”

“Shut up! You know he understands us,” warned the other, pulling him to a halt in front of a broad windowed cell. Slapping his hand on the palm lock, he gave a voice code and the door slid open.

He was pushed into the cell, his clothing thrust into his arms, and the door sealed.

“They’ll feed you soon,” said the first guard, his voice sounding slightly remote through the speaker. “Water’s in the faucet by the basin, and behind that half-door you’ll find sanitary facilities.”

Left alone, he was confused at their reaction. They hadn’t turned on him as would his own kind. Why not? Still puzzled, he walked over to the bed. Doubtless he’d have plenty time ahead of him to find out more about his captors. Now he regretted being stationed out in the desert rather than in one of the Sholan cities. At least if he’d been there, he’d have had more experience of this species. Throwing his clothes down on the bed, he turned his mind to other things and proceeded to check out his cell.

Once they’d eaten, Carrie and Kusac fell into an exhausted sleep that was broken only by the need to feed their daughter. Rhyasha sat by the crib late into the night, watching her granddaughter, hardly any more able to credit the miracle of her existence than Carrie and Kusac themselves. She left only when urged to do so by Konis.

But Konis! Our first grandchild, she protested as he led her away.

And their first child. Let them enjoy her alone. Soon enough they’ll want your help!

By morning, Noni’s advice had proved to be sound and the mother of a newborn on the estate was hired as a milk nurse. Just as Carrie had needed to supplement her own diet while carrying Kashini, so now did the cub need more than her Human mother’s milk alone provided.

When Kusac finally awoke around the middle of the day, he left Carrie sleeping and went in search of Kaid. He found him sitting at his desk comm eating breakfast and writing his report

“Mind if I join you?”

Kaid indicated a chair with his fork. “Please do.”

“What did Noni say about your injuries?” Kusac asked, sitting down beside him.

“She says I’m fine now. Gave me a pot of ointment for my hand to help bring down the new swelling.” He indicated that Kusac should help himself from his plate.

Kusac flicked an ear in a negative. “If I can use your comm for a moment, I’ll send down for some more food. D’you want anything?”

Kaid’s ears pricked forward. “I could eat a second breakfast,” he said hopefully. “Don’t know when I’ve been so hungry.”

“Time travel,” said Kusac. “Noni said it had depleted our energy reserves and we had to eat as much as possible in the next few days to build ourselves up again. Carrie’s been hit worst by it. She hadn’t got the weight to lose in the first place, neither has Kashini. She was developing at an alarming rate those last four days before she was born. Did I tell you that maintaining the gateway we used to come back destroyed the crystal she wore?”

“It did?” said Kaid, eye ridges meeting in concern as he turned his comm round for Kusac. “It didn’t harm mine. What about the cub? Did it affect her?”

“Not that we can tell. Both Noni and Vanna said she was as healthy as any newborn they’d ever seen. I can’t help worrying, though. If the energy drain could destroy Carrie’s crystal, it must have had some effect on them beyond Carrie’s weight loss.” He leaned forward and keyed into the kitchen, asking Zhala for hot food and coffee to be sent up.

Returning the screen to its normal position, he sat back. “I think we should tell everyone concerned that the way to the past has been sealed.”

Kaid nodded slowly. “Our success may encourage more people to try. We want to avoid that. Whatever the reasons, too many people have died that way already. And the gateway has been destroyed, in our time.”

“Kezule will be able to tell us if other travelers arrived at the temple while he was there.”

“It didn’t need Kezule and his warriors to kill them, all it needed was for them to arrive as the temple collapsed,” said Kaid. “But you’re right. We should say the way is closed. Apart from any other consideration, we don’t want the past altered any more than it has been.”

“How much of the truth do we tell Lijou?”

Kaid hesitated. “Let’s play that one by ear. See how our debriefing with him goes. The series of events that enabled us to go back are unlikely to recur, but if they became common knowledge, someone could try to duplicate them.”

“They couldn’t duplicate your contribution, Kaid. It’s unique. There are no other telepathic warriors from the past living on Shola.”

Kaid stopped what he was doing and reached for his pack of stim twigs. “There is one other. Rezac,” he said quietly. “If the message Carrie — and others — received is to be believed.”

“He’s not on Shola. Who else is aware of the sending?”

“I checked through the messages as usual this morning. Lijou heard it, and I’m pretty sure that your father did.”

“What does Lijou say?”

“To contact him as soon as possible. I wouldn’t bother. Given the time of day, I’ll warrant he’s on his way over here already.”

Kusac grunted. “If he is, he can wait till we’ve eaten.”

Some ten minutes later, true to Kaid’s prediction, Lijou’s imminent arrival was announced by Ni’Zulhu, followed by the person himself shortly afterwards.

“You both look thinner, not that that’ll last from the size of the meals you two are eating,” he said, staring critically at them.

“Join us,” said Kusac. “You must be missing your second meal by coming out here.”

“I am. Your young sister Kitra — who seems to be growing up remarkably quickly all of a sudden — appears to have assumed the position of house-head. She said she’d see a meal was sent up for me,” he said, pulling a chair up to join them. “Your son’s been good for her, Kaid — in fact they’ve been good for each other. I’m glad. I was afraid he’d never recover from the loss of Nnya and his son.”

“They’re only Companions, Lijou,” said Kaid. “It’s a little early to be seeing a long term relationship.”

“The Aldatan females know exactly who they want from the first, and tend to stay with that choice unfortunately,” Lijou sighed. “Not that you males are much different! Mind if I have some coffee, Kusac?”

“Help yourself. How do you mean unfortunately?”

“Rhyasha broke many hearts when she forced her choice of Konis as a life-mate on the Clan Lord, that’s all.” He poured himself a drink. “Kitra’s so like her. She’ll have Dzaka, mark my words. I’d stake money on it.”

“My sister’s barely left childhood, Lijou,” objected Kusac, helping himself to more bread. “She’s not ready to choose a life-mate yet.”

“You’ve news for us, Lijou. What is it?” asked Kaid.

“While you slept this morning, Konis and I’ve been busy,” he said, sipping his drink. “He convened a special meeting of the Clan Council and between us, we pushed through the ratification of your new Clan. It’s been done as you asked, you’re an official sub-sect of the Aldatan Clan and are to be known as the En’Shalla Aldatans or just the En’Shalla Clan. At the next meeting, you’ll be Invested and can take your seat on the Council of Seventeen.”

“Seventeen?” Kusac frowned. “Oh. Sixteen plus ours.” Suddenly it felt like the society he’d grown up in was changing too rapidly — yet he realized he was the one who’d initiated the changes. He shook his head to dispel the somber mood and grinned over at Kaid. “We did it, Kaid. We won our freedom from the Guilds and Clans!” He turned back to Lijou. “How are the members of our clan chosen?”

“You choose those friends and colleagues you want to be part of your family. If they agree, they must formally accept your invitation and take the Aldatan name then they will have En’Shalla status like you. Choose carefully, Kusac,” Lijou warned. “Being a member of your Clan will confer great privileges which could be misused.”

“You needn’t worry, Lijou. I intend to set it up so only the immediate family, those with Human Leskas, and our Brothers, will have the En’Shalla status. Apart from new mixed Leskas, we’re not recruiting for members. As you know, we have all the people I want living here on this estate. I also intend to set up a ruling council with myself as head to see to all matters of discipline and policy.”

“That should help ensure that future generations will find it difficult to abuse the responsibilities that come with power. This afternoon, Governor Nesul will pass a bill giving all lay-Brothers and Sisters the rank of priest. Unlike Esken’s priests, we all belong to one faith — the only faith with its own college of priests. We’re also being granted the right to wear black as our designated color. When acting as warriors of the Brotherhood, our people will wear gray trimmed with black and drop the use of the Warrior Guild’s red.”

“I said this would happen,” Kusac reminded Lijou. “It’s going to mean a lot of reorganizing for you.”

“It’s work I will relish, said Lijou, sitting back in his chair. “Even as we speak, because you are now En’Shalla, your status within the lay-Brotherhood is being altered to show that you are priests. That includes you, Kaid.”

Kusac watched his friend’s thoughtful expression. Had he realized that now Lijou could ask for his own Guild? The Guild of Priests? It would take yet another portion of Esken’s power away from him, making all priests subject to Lijou.

Yes. It occurred to Konis too, the Head Priest sent to him. And Nesul and Raiban. I’ve been told to apply for it at the next All-Guild’s meeting.

What about the joint leadership of the Brotherhood?

It’ll remain unchanged. Esken’s priests will simply belong to me instead. Switching to speech, Lijou looked toward Kaid. “The council selecting the candidate for Guild Leader of the Warrior Brothers wish to reinstate you as a Brother.”

Startled, Kaid stared at him. “Reinstate me?”

“As if Ghezu had never expelled you,” agreed the Head Priest.

Kaid was silent for a moment then began to laugh softly. “No, thank you, Lijou. The past happened, it can’t be undone. Besides, being En’Shalla, what more do I need?”

“I said that would be your answer. It’s never good to dwell on the past. Now,” he said, sitting forward. “Tell me your news!”

“Our news?” Kusac gave Kaid a humorous glance. “Who says we have news?”

Lijou made an exasperated noise. “Don’t wrong-spoor me! I gave you my news. Start with Carrie and the cub.”

“Both fine. Vanna’s scanner and Noni both agreed on that. About the only thing they did agree on,” said Kusac wryly, remembering the females’ attitudes to each other.

“Noni’s here?” Lijou looked startled.

“For a day or two. She’ll be staying at the main house with my parents until after Kashini’s Validation.”

“I’m impressed. Now the Margins. What did you find? Did you see Him?”

“We found Vartra,” said Kaid. “He’s not what you expect, Lijou.”

“Just tell me!” There was a glint in his eyes.

“Things were different then, Lijou, very different. No Guilds. Instead they had places of learning where many things were taught all under the same roof. Vartra was a physician who worked there teaching genetics to younglings. Not a Physician like we have, but a doctor of research. There were a few telepaths then, too few in Vartra’s eyes. He was working on a way to enhance their abilities and increase the likelihood of Leska links happening so as to breed more. He thought himself untalented but he wasn’t. Carrie said he forced the genes into the patterns he wanted. Which is why the result was unstable, and also why no one can duplicate it.”

Lijou let out his breath with a hiss. “So what we are, the very fabric of our being as Telepaths, is due to Him, and it’s unstable?”

“Not necessarily,” said Kusac, putting a restraining hand on the Head Priest’s arm. “When we left, he was working on a way to stabilize us. We may well be the result of that stabilization.”

“Where do the Humans fit in?”

“He took a blood sample from Carrie. Going back to the Margins contributed to our future and my own Link with Carrie.”

Lijou sat silently for a moment. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? Our fears of the future you and Carrie represented are what drove you back to the past to create what we feared.”

“It had to happen, Lijou, because it did,” said Kaid.

“I know,” he sighed. “And I was right about you,” he said, wagging a finger in his direction. “You were chosen before them!”

“Not quite, but I won’t argue the point,” Kaid murmured, trying not to let Kusac catch his eye.

“So how did He become a God — or is he?” This was Lijou’s crucial question and they could see and feel his anxiety. Was their whole faith based on sand — or rock?

“He’s a God now, that’s indisputable,” said Kaid. “I believe it was a mixture of guilt and His Talent that caused it. I don’t know how Gods are formed, Lijou. That’s your department.”

“Guilt?” Lijou looked from one to the other.

“It wasn’t completely his fault,” said Kusac. “His students used the serum before it was fully tested. It’s as well they did, because that generation of enhanced telepaths were all that stood between Shola and the Valtegans. He had to send his best people out on a what was virtually a suicide mission. He hated having to do that.”

Kaid stirred in his seat. “Lijou, there wasn’t the time to ask many questions. What we did gather was that the telepaths allowed themselves to be captured by the Valtegans, then somehow managed to place themselves next to important leaders. It was Rezac and Zashou who gave the signal for their attack to begin. What the nature of their attack was, we don’t know, but a Valtegan starship, out of control because the telepaths on board created dissent among the command crew, hit our lesser moon. That caused the wholesale destruction of Shola that we call the Cataclysm.”

“Fyak wasn’t that far wrong, was he? We were significantly involved in causing the cataclysm,” said Lijou thoughtfully. “When you say Rezac and Zashou, you do mean the same Rezac who sent the message to Shola that Carrie intercepted, don’t you?”

“The same,” said Kusac. “They’re on Jalna, with Jo, Davies and Kris.”

“Konis said they’d been captured by the Lord there. We must get them back safely to Shola. What they can tell us will be invaluable! Most of what we’ve discussed must not go beyond these walls,” he said, looking from one to the other. “These are matters for our Order, not for the world at large.”

“Raiban will know about some of them already, Lijou. We brought back a Valtegan general — Kezule. The one who convinced Fyak he was a god.”

“Then we must decide now what Raiban should be told,” he said. “More, we must talk, in depth, of what our Order should know of your meeting with Vartra.”

A knock on the door heralded the arrival of Lijou’s meal.

Carrie stood looking down at the freshly bathed cub lying on the padded nursery surface . The infant — her daughter — lay on her stomach, limbs splayed slightly out from her body, hands spread wide. Through the blond down that covered her, her skin, still pink from her bath, showed through. The tiny tail, barely more than a short, stubby triangle, was held close to her rear. It was hard to think that she’d given birth to this small furred scrap.

The cub lifted her head an inch or two off the mat and sniffed the air, blindly searching for her mother. She gave a soft mewl of distress.

“Well, pick your daughter up, child,” said Noni brusquely. “Don’t let her get upset or she’ll not settle properly for her feed.”

Leaning down, Carrie carefully folded the cloth around her cub, picked her up and carried her over to the bed. Noni watched as she settled herself.

“So Tallinu delivered her, did he? A novel experience for all of you, I’ll not doubt! A useful male to have about.” She peered sharply at Carrie as she began to feed her infant. “You do intend to keep him, don’t you?”

“Yes, Noni, I do,” she said, wincing as Kashini’s hands, claws splayed, began to open and close against her breast. “Ouch! Her teeth are bad enough, but those claws of hers!”

“It’s only for a few weeks, child. You should wrap her arms tight in her blanket if it’s that painful.”

“No, I couldn’t do that to her,” she said, gently caressing her cub’s head with her free hand. “She’d feel trapped. She needs to be free to move as she wants.” She looked over to where the old Sholan sat. “You know, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about her, but somehow it doesn’t seem important that she isn’t like me. She’s my daughter and that’s all that matters.” Reflexively she held her baby closer, feeling a surge of love welling up within her.

“That’s blood talking to blood, child,” Noni laughed gently. “Would you listen to her? I can hear her purring from here! You and she have bonded all right!”

Despite their talk about Kashini, Carrie could sense Noni was more interested in Kaid. Now the old Sholan knew she and her cub were bonded, she’d turned her mind to other matters. Well, if she wanted to know, she could damned well ask! Noni had been enigmatic with all of them often enough, now it was her turn.

After a few minutes of silence, Noni finally let her curiosity get the better of her.

“And how did your night with Tallinu go? You left before I had chance to ask you. It has only been the once so far, hasn’t it?”

“So far,” agreed Kaid from the open doorway. “As for how our night went, shame on you for asking, Noni!”

Carrie looked up, smiling in pleasure to see him. They were so different, he and Kusac. Her husband, the telepath and scholar, as dark-pelted as midnight, and Kaid, the highly disciplined warrior-priest, his fur the color of the desert soil at Khezy’ipik. How could she care so deeply for two such different males?

“Have you no more respect for your elders than to go sneakin’ up on them like that?” Noni demanded tartly.

“Not a lot,” he replied, coming over to Carrie. “Kusac will be here in a few minutes to escort you down to the aircar.” He reached out impulsively to touch Carrie’s cheek.

“Hmpf!” said Noni, pushing herself slowly up from her chair. “So you’re not a love-sick youngling! You do a fair job of imitating one!”

“You’ll not goad me today, Noni,” he said.

Carrie took his hand in hers and urged him to sit beside her. As he did, his larger hand enveloped hers, keeping it within his grasp. “I’ve come to spend a little time with Carrie, if she doesn’t mind, not argue with you.”

“I’d like that,” said Carrie aware of his grip tightening gently as she spoke.

“I suppose I’d better leave you in peace,” Noni grumbled, turning away from them and making her way slowly to the door.

When she’d gone, Carrie gently eased her hand away. “Kashini’s heavier than she looks,” she explained, using it to help support her cub’s weight. “How’s it going with Lijou?”

“He’ll be here for a while yet,” said Kaid. “Kusac asked me to keep you company, and I, reluctantly of course, agreed.”

“Of course.” She matched his grin. “Tell me some more about the Triads, Tallinu. I know they formed so the warrior could protect the Leska pair, but there was more to their link than that, wasn’t there?”

“Some,” he agreed. “You have to see them in relation to their time. The needs they fulfilled then don’t exist now.”

She could sense his evasion. “Historically,” she conceded, watching the muscles of his face and ears relax. She found Sholans so much easier to read than Humans.

“Historically, after the cataclysm, there were only a few telepaths left on this continent. Those that remained had to breed, to provide future generations. We know Vartra was trying to increase the number of Leska bondings, and that his virus, like our ni’uzu, affected those with non-telepathic talents too. The result was that some warriors were drawn to Leska pairs and formed a bond — a triad — with them. More often it was the female who had two lovers, or life-mates, because few females could be spared to fight then so it was important that the females be adequately defended.”

“Two life mates?”

He nodded. “All telepathic links, be they Leska ones or minor ones, started out as a way for the strongest talents to be drawn together — natural selection. With so few pure telepaths, they had to keep track of the family bloodlines, and the Triads meant the inclusion of some warriors with minor talents made the gene pool larger. Later generations of triads recognized that only one life-mate was needed so long as the cubs were parented and nurtured by all three.”

“That’s why Kusac registered our Triad at the temple,” nodded Carrie. She felt his mind begin to retreat from her as he broke eye contact.

“There’s very little likelihood of us becoming genetically compatible,” he said quietly. “I think Kusac was being over-cautious. Even with Leska pairs it takes a gestalt.”

“You’ve been exposed to a gestalt, Tallinu.”

He looked sharply at her. “Never!”

“Mara’s, when we were at the ruins the day you left Valsgarth to find Khemu,” she reminded him.

He looked away again. “That doesn’t count. It has to belong to your own Triad.”

“There isn’t time for more cubs anyway,” she said, changing the tone of the conversation. “We’ve got friends to rescue. Vanna says that now she and Jack are working together with access to both our species data banks, they’re much nearer a breakthrough for this common contraceptive for the mixed Leska females. And while we were in the Margins, the military gave her all the equipment and people she wanted. It seems they’re determined nothing will delay us going on this rescue mission, which suits me.”

“You know about it?”

“Of course,” she said calmly. “Once Kusac figured it out, then naturally I knew. I picked it up from you as well.”

“Me?” His whole body showed his surprise.

“I’ve been able to pick up your occasional unguarded surface thought since before you and Dzaka fought.”

He grunted non-committaly.

She nodded. “With Rezac and Zashou and three Humans stranded on Jalna, that makes five people. There’s no way two of us can locate that many people, let alone rescue them, Tallinu.”

In her arms, Kashini began to make tiny mewling sounds of distress as she lifted her head and turned to look up at her mother. They both felt the sudden burst of hunger and fretfulness.

Kaid winced. “She’s very sensitive to your emotions. Dzaka’s talent wasn’t this developed even by the age of six.”

“We’ve noticed,” she said, lifting the cub up and holding her out to him. “Take her for a moment, please.”

Cautiously Kaid accepted the infant.

Carrie laughed, feeling his confusion and reluctance. “I’d get used to it, Tallinu. You’re her secondary father after all!”

He gave her a horrified look. “Her uncle!” he said, a pained tone in his voice. “Only her uncle!”

The cub clutched at his arms, sniffing curiously.

“I’ll take her back now,” Carrie said.

As she settled Kashini against her other breast, Carrie was aware of Kaid watching her. You males are all the same, she sent. Fascinated by newborns!

Not newborns, by their mothers feeding them, he responded, ears dipping in embarrassment. You do realize I’ve been waiting nearly fifty years to see Kashini born, don’t you? And I was right. She is very special.

He reached toward Carrie, gently running the sensitive tips of his fingers across the curve of her breast, then lower, till he touched the cub’s cheek.

I have to confess I’m no different from Kusac. His hand moved again, his fingers first touching hers then twining round them where they supported the child.

“How so? Surely you’ve seen other females feeding their cubs?”

“Never. Only the closest of male clan members are allowed to be present.”

“For such a liberated species, you have some strange customs,” she murmured, feeling a warm lassitude begin to creep over her. “Don’t make me feel tired, Kaid. When I’ve finished feeding her I want to go downstairs and join you.”

“You should rest. You’ve got the Validation ceremony the day after tomorrow.”

“I’ve rested enough for now. I’ve seen too much of the nursery and my bedroom.”

Kaid laughed and leaned forward across Kashini to nuzzle Carrie’s cheek.

The gesture was slightly clumsy and reminded her how unused he was to moments of affection. Turning her face to his, she brushed his lips with hers. She found the kiss returned with an urgency she hadn’t expected, then, just as suddenly, he pulled back from her, ears slightly laid back.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done that while you’re nursing. Tell me, are you really unharmed by the birth? You were in so much pain and I could do nothing to help you. I should have studied birthing when I knew we were going to the Margins while you were still pregnant.”

She tightened her hand round his, sending reassurances to him mentally. “How could you, Tallinu? You were barely able to move when we brought you out of Stronghold. You were the one who had to study the Margin rituals at the shrine with Ghyan, you had to lead us back into the past. That was far more important than learning about birthing when we thought I still had another eight or more weeks left. Yes, I really am fine! Noni herself could have done no more for me than you and Kusac did.”

“What about Kashini?”

“She’s fine too. She is too mentally aware for her age. She may even have been born with her Talent fully awake instead of growing into it as is normal. It may be due to me having to control the vortex, but we don’t know. Whatever it was, although it’s inconvenient for us, it hasn’t seemed to bother her yet.”

“Being yours and Kusac’s child, I’d be surprised if she wasn’t unusual from the first,” he said with a grin, easing his hand away from her and beginning to get up. “I must go now. We’ve still a lot to discuss with Lijou. I’ll see you when you come downstairs.”

That night, the first of the winter storms came, and with it, the nightmares. Though the environmental screens cut out most of the noises, Kaid could still hear the wind howling round the villa. No house was silent especially one as newly constructed as this. He tossed and turned, listening to the creakings and soft rattlings, trying to identify their source until at last he fell into an exhausted sleep.

Even then, for him the sounds didn’t stop. They grew louder, deeper in pitch till he was trapped within a roaring sea of noise. Heat enveloped him; burning particles ripped their way through his pelt, searing the flesh below. As terror gripped his throat in its jaws, he realized he was caught within the vortex of the gateway to the past.

If only he could make a sound — cry out, anything — he knew he could end it! He fought against the terror, against the paralysis that held his body rigid and constricted his throat. This couldn’t be happening! He couldn’t possibly be traveling back to the past again! The drug dreams were supposed to be over!

A strangled noise escaped his lips: it was a beginning. He tried again, this time managing a low mewl. The world righted itself with a sickening lurch and suddenly he was sitting up in bed, drenched in sweat and gasping for air. The echo of a sigh was sounding in his ears.

The door slid open and, framed by the light from the other room, he saw Kusac. A curt hand signal to someone obviously behind him, then his Liege came over to his bedside. With a murmured apology, Kusac reached down and touched his fingertips to the pulse at the side of Kaid’s neck.

“I’m fine,” said Kaid, turning his head aside.

Kusac let his hand drop. “May I sit?”

Flicking his right ear briefly in agreement, Kaid worked on slowing his breathing as Kusac perched on the edge of the bed.

“Carrie said you’d cried out.”

“A dream, nothing more,” said Kaid. “I’m surprised that with the dampers on she noticed.”

“She sensed it through your crystal.”

Against his throat, Kaid became aware of the warmth of the crystal and her concern for him. He didn’t respond: she’d know how he was through Kusac. He pushed the cover aside and got up, heading to the dispenser for a drink of water.

“I’m sorry I disturbed her,” he said, keeping his back to Kusac. “I know she needs her sleep. I’ll stop wearing it.”

“No need to do that, Kaid. This wasn’t a complaint: we were concerned for you, that’s all.”

Feeling Kusac’s hesitation, he turned round. “I think tomorrow it might be better if I moved into the Brotherhood accommodation across the street.”


“I’m healed now, there’s no need for me to live here unless I’m on duty. And I’m less likely to disturb Carrie.”

He watched Kusac’s ears flick backward in surprise. “Kaid, I told you at Chezy, you’re not my Liegeman, you’re my friend, part of our family. Surely by now you know that our friendship goes beyond the need we had to form a Triad. There’s no reason for you to leave. Your home is here, with us — if you want it. As for being on duty, I know you, you always consider yourself on duty, but there’s no need for that now. These are your rooms, here for you whether you choose to use them or not.”

Turning, Kaid returned to his bed, placing the mug on his night stand. “I never apologized for leaving the way I did,” he said quietly. “Nor thanked you for getting me out of Stronghold.”

“There’s no need. We understood why you needed to go,” said Kusac, standing up. “We were just damned glad to get you back alive.”

“You have my thanks anyway. I’ll not disturb you again. It was probably that cheese Zhala served tonight.”

Kusac grimaced. “It was a little strong, certainly not to my taste. Look, Kaid, the last week has been unimaginable. We traveled back fifteen hundred years and Vartra knows how many thousand odd miles as well as everything else you’ve been through. We’re all exhausted. Not just that, time itself has played some awful tricks on us, you especially. We all need to take it easy, come to terms with what’s happened, what we’ve seen and done. At least we have each other, and our Talents. If you have any problems, don’t try to cope alone. Remember, Telepaths share the bad times as well as the good.”

Kaid nodded. “I’ll remember. Thank you for coming. You’d best go before your cub wakes.”

Kusac rejoined his mate, still concerned about Kaid. Sitting beside her, he leaned over the crib, looking down at their sleeping daughter. Carefully he placed his finger against the tiny half-curled hand, feeling the gentle twitch as the cub gradually came closer to waking.

“I still can’t believe she’s real,” he said, moving his hand to stroke the tiny blond head with its closely furled ears.

“Oh, she’s real,” said Carrie drily, pushing herself up into a sitting position. “Every time I feed her, I know she’s real! Her teeth are like needles!”

Instantly his attention was on her. “I thought it would be easier for you now we had the nurse.”

“It is, but that doesn’t blunt those teeth! My skin isn’t quite as thick as yours, you know.”

He leaned forward to place his cheek against hers as she smothered a yawn. “Then give yourself a break tomorrow. Let the nurse feed her. Have the day to yourself.”

“No thanks! I’d rather have the teeth than the pain I get if I miss more than one feed. Thank goodness it’s only for a few weeks. Tell me, how’s Kaid?”

“You know you’re the only one who can sense him, Carrie. You know as much as I do.”

“You saw him, though. How did he look? What did his body language tell you?”

“As usual, not much. He put it down to Zhala’s cheese, which might not be far wrong considering it gave me indigestion.”

“I’m glad I couldn’t have any! What did your instincts tell you?”

“That it was the cheese.”

“Not that! You know what I mean.” She grinned, batting his hand away as he stroked her cheek.

“That whatever it was, he’s keeping it to himself. There’s not a lot we can do, cub, except keep an eye on him. At least the drug dreams are over.”

“It should all be over now Ghezu’s dead,” she murmured.

“You’ve got me worried now, Carrie,” he said, sitting back and regarding her. “You said Ghezu hadn’t broken him. Was that the truth, or were you protecting him?”

“Kaid has to have some privacy, Kusac. We’ve learned how to create our own despite the closeness of our Link. He hasn’t. His mind’s still an open book and I can’t betray those involuntary confidences.” She stopped for a moment. “It was the truth.”

“A near thing then?”

She nodded slowly. “Near. But that’s not all he’s coming to terms with. Learning that he was responsible for sending himself forward to live in our time, and worse, responsible for giving his child-self his adult memories of me, did hit him hard. I think it still troubles him.”

He reached out to take her face between both hands, looking deep into her eyes. “If he needs you, cub, go to him. I don’t begrudge what you and he share, because we have so much. I’m glad you chose him as your lover and our third. There’s no one I could trust the way I trust him.” He urged her closer, his mouth touching hers in a gentle Terran kiss that gradually became more purposeful.

Beside them, in her crib, Kashini began to mewl. With a sigh, Carrie and Kusac parted.

He was two years old again, racing down the tunnel from the upper level to the lower caverns when he collided with her. Papers went flying everywhere. Then she reached out and grabbed hold of him. He froze, hardly believing what he saw. She was so different, not like them at all. Her face, surrounded by a cloud of hair the color of sunlight, was as furless as her hands. Then she grasped him by the other arm and held him even closer. For the first time, he could smell her scent.

He woke with a start, breath coming fast and sweat again coating his palms. Sitting up, he rubbed at his eyes, pushing his hair back from his face in an effort to be sure he was awake. Gods! It had been so real! As if he’d been there. Reaching out with a shaking hand, he picked up the mug of water from his night table. Their trip to the past had released all the memories he’d tried to hide so long ago, and now they were making themselves felt. He took a long drink before returning the mug to the stand.

Determinedly he lay down. He wasn’t going to let this dream worry him. So what if he remembered her from back then? It didn’t mean that what he felt for her now was based solely on what had happened to him as a cub. The nightmare earlier must have triggered the memory.

It took some time to succumb to sleep again, and when he did, it was only to return to the past.

They stood in front of the entrance to the lab, an area that Tallinu had never been allowed near. He was excited, could hardly contain himself. So much rushing around! Everything was being moved — all their belongings. He was too young to help so he amused himself running round seeing what everyone was doing. He spent most time watching their visitors, the two Sholans and the strange female.

Running into her had frightened him, because he knew enough to realize she’d been expecting a cub herself and he’d been afraid he’d hurt her. They’d taken her to the doctor but she must have been all right as she’d not been kept in the infirmary for long.

When it came time to leave, he went with Dr Vartra to see the door to the lab sealed. He’d been shown the collar, given it in fact, to put into the control panel recess.

“We have to leave it here, Tallinu,” the doctor said.


“Because it has to be found there.”

He thought about this for a moment. “Like a present?”

“Yes, just like a present.” He heard the note of surprised pleasure in the doctor’s voice.

“For her? For the stranger? Can we leave it for her?” he’d asked.

“If you wish.”

“We have to leave now,” said Goran. “There’s no more time left, Vartra.”

“We’re coming,” the doctor said, looking over his shoulder. “Are our travelers safe?”

` “Yeah, all loaded up like you said. Have you put the collar in yet?”

“We’re just doing it now.”

He felt himself being lifted and held level with the control panel. “Put the collar in, Tallinu. We have to go now.”

He’d placed the collar into the recess, watching while the doctor pressed the button to seal the lab doors. As the panel itself slid shut, Vartra took his hand and placed it against the rock wall, letting him feel the slight indentations that marked the concealed mechanism.

“That’s where you press to open the panel, Tallinu. You’ll need to remember this, so feel carefully over the rock.”

“I’ll remember,” he said. He felt proud that an important adult like Dr Vartra would entrust him with the secret of how to unlock the doors.

They turned away, the doctor still carrying him. A sweet was handed to him as they made their way down the corridors to the outside where the vehicles were waiting for them. By the time he was handed into their truck, his eyes were beginning to feel heavy and it was difficult to keep them open. He was passed from person to person till at last he felt himself come to rest on a soft lap. He sniffed. The scent was familiar. Opening his eyes with an effort, he looked up to see the strange female.

Her hand rubbed against his cheek as she gathered him more comfortably on what was left of her lap. “Settle down now,” she said quietly. “Go to sleep, Tallinu. It’s going to be a long journey.”

His heavy eyelids closed as he pulled himself closer, leaning his head against her belly. He fell asleep listening to the gentle rhythm of her unborn cub’s heartbeat.

His troubled night had left him disoriented and tired. He kept to his rooms, working on his report, coming down only for second meal then retreating to the sanctuary of his rooms again. The day seemed to be full of shadows for him — shadows and whispers — to the point where he began to wonder if the balance of his mind had been affected. By evening, he felt as if he was inhabiting a world of half-reality, that was neither here in his present, nor belonging to the past.

After third meal, he excused himself, saying he was going to visit the shrine and that he might remain there overnight.

Ghyan was surprised to see him. “I thought you’d still be resting,” he said.

“I’ve had a bellyful of resting,” Kaid growled, sinking his hands deeper into the pockets of the long winter coat he wore. “I want to meditate, Ghyan. Can I use the room I had before?”

“It’s your room, Kaid,” said Ghyan. “Can I get you a drink?”

Kaid shook his head. “Nothing, thanks. The peace of this shrine is all I need.”

“How long do you plan to stay?”

“Maybe overnight, if you have no objection.”

“None. As I said, the room is yours.” The priest stopped, obviously choosing his next words carefully. “Before you go, can you speak yet of what you saw in the Margins?”

“Not yet. Father Lijou has asked us to mention it to no one as yet,” said Kaid, turning to leave. “I mean you no insult, Ghyan,” he added.

“None taken, Kaid. I’ll see you’re not disturbed till morning. If you leave during the night, would you stop by our night watch and let him know?”

“I will.”

It was with relief that he closed the door of the small room behind him and switched on the psychic damper field. Now he felt that he’d truly left the world outside. He started setting out the oil lamp and the incense, taking comfort from the familiar tasks. There had been too much in his life lately that had been beyond his control. He needed this time of solitude and old familiarity — and isolation from the constant background awareness of the minds around him..

Thankfully, the room was heated. Shrugging off his coat, he looked in the chest at the foot of the bed for something more comfortable to wear. In it he found a black priest’s robe — one of the Brotherhood’s. Surprised, he lifted it out and unfolded it. It had his scent on it – old, but unmistakably his. Then he recognized it. It had belonged to him all those years ago in Stronghold. How in all the Gods’ names had it come here? Then it dawned on him. Kusac had said that Dzaka had kept the room tended while he’d been missing in the hope that Vartra would guide him home. He must have kept the robe all these ten years past, and brought it here for him.

A wave of emotion came over him at the thought behind the gesture. Despite their unresolved quarrels, and stormy relationship, his son had cared enough to not only keep the robe, but to place it here against his return. He took off his jacket and slipped his arms into it, fastening it with the cord that hung from the waist. A sense of premonition, swiftly followed by disquiet came over him as he did, but resolutely he pushed it aside.

He settled on the mat, lighting the ornate bronze lamp and crumbling the incense onto the hot charcoal. Scented smoke filled the air, swirling lazily as he began to chant the litanies. Gradually the tension began to drop away from him as he let himself sink lower and lower into the meditative trance.

For some time he stayed like this, at peace with himself as he repeated the teaching litanies of Vartra, examining each of them in the new light of what he’d learned in the Margins.

It began almost subliminally at first, sounding like the whispers that had followed him all day. Then it became louder, finally intruding into his consciousness.

He needs to be focused on us.
He’s not listening! Tallinu! Tallinu!
Calls himself Kaid now.
Kaid, dammit! Kaid!

Confused, his chanting began to falter as he tried to sense who was calling him.

He’s not responding. We can’t keep this up much longer!
Get him to do it. He’s supposed to be the god after all. Maybe he’ll listen to the doctor.
God? What talk was this of gods?
I can’t!
You’d better, because we can’t get him otherwise!

He heard the implicit threat. Litanies, chants, all forgotten, he began to mentally back away. This didn’t feel right. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to know. Then his mind was grasped and held. Powerless, he had no choice but to listen.

Kaid, we’re not finished yet. There’s work still to be done.

No! I’ve done enough for you! No more, Vartra, no more! His mind shouted the refusal.

You will return once more. You are at the heart of matters both here and in the future. You will return!


The room started to recede and he felt himself pulled toward a heat and fire he recognized only too well.

Got him!

As if from a great height, he saw his body slump then fall forward onto the floor. A white rime began to form over his robe, then, as panic began to take hold, the image faded and he was swept into a maelstrom of sound and heat and pain.

Fire licked along his limbs, burning and consuming him. The smell of seared fur and flesh filled his nostrils and as he opened his mouth to scream, flames gushed out. Mercifully, his senses left him.

He woke to find himself lying on the floor wrapped in a damp robe. The lamp flame began to flicker as he pushed himself upright. Groggily he peered at it. The oil reservoir was nearly empty. He must have been asleep for several hours. Stiffly he got to his feet, wincing as his groin muscles complained. Too tired to be concerned, he blew out the meditation lamp then limped over to the bedside to activate the light. Stripping off his robe, he hung it over a chair to dry. With a shiver, he pulled back the covers and climbed into bed, passing his hand over the sensor to douse the light. Almost instantly, he was asleep .

Morning brought a vague feeling of disquiet and uncertainty. His meditation the night before had resulted only in half a night’s sleep on the floor and the stiff and sore muscles that accompanied it.

Getting out of bed, he dropped down onto all four limbs. It would be easier and less painful to ease his muscles this way. Arching his back upward, he stretched his spine first, all the way down to the tip of his tail. Then he leaned backward till his forearms touched the floor, straightening his spine and flexing the large muscles in his shoulders and neck, easing the kinks in his upper back. Standing up again, he extended first his left, then his right leg behind him. Before he reached full stretch, though, the tenderness in his groin made itself felt once more.

Rearing upright, he gently pressed the inner surfaces of both thighs: definitely tender, which was both surprising and worrying as he’d not been with a female since the night he’d spent with Jaisa in the Margins. Even if he’d had company the night before, for those muscles to be painful was not normal.

Something had caused it, but what? Using the skills Kusac had been teaching him, he searched his memory, finding nothing to give him even a clue as to what had happened the night before. He remembered meditating, then nothing until he’d wakened cold and damp in the early hours of the morning. He shivered, knowing it had nothing to do with the chill air. Resolutely he put it from his mind. Whatever the cause, a hot bath would help ease the aching muscles.

A note from Ghyan inviting him to join him for first meal was waiting for him when he returned. Inevitably the conversation centered round Vartra and the Fire Margins.

“Matters have gone beyond the point where we can discuss them on a personal basis, Ghyan. You’ll have to wait till Lijou briefs you himself.”

“What can you tell me, then?” Ghyan asked in exasperation. “Tell me about the person!”

Again the shiver as wisps of memory seemed to drift briefly through his mind. They were gone before he could pursue them. “He’s like us — subject to the same fears and self-doubt.” Yesterday he could have said more, now he felt unsure, as if the person he’d met in the past had retreated within the legend. The whole topic disturbed him deeply.

He got to his feet. “I have to go, Ghyan. Thank you for your hospitality but I’ve things I must do before the Validation ceremony starts.”

He returned to his room, changing back into his ordinary clothes. Looking at the discarded robe, he reached for it, and folding it, placed it in the small bag he’d brought. The gap in his memory troubled him, as had the faint voices the day before. Was his mind becoming unstable? Was it, despite what Carrie said, due to his newly awakened Talent? His blood ran cold at the thought. To be rogue, with an unstable Talent! He had to go to Stronghold. He was a danger to himself and everyone, especially her and the cub.

The afternoon sun had warmed the air and Carrie found she wasn’t as cold as she’d feared. The Validation ceremony, because of its unique nature in their case, was being taken by Father Lijou himself at the Valsgarth estate. Her attention, though she stood facing the Head Priest, wasn’t focused on him or the ceremony he was conducting. It was on her daughter, lying in the priest’s arms. Kashini was fretful, disliking being separated from her mother. Though silent, she was moving restlessly.

It couldn’t last much longer, Carrie thought. Lijou had already confirmed that their new Clan was a legally designated branch of the Aldatan family, all that remained was the Validation of her daughter’s birth.

Flanked by Kusac on one side and Kaid on the other, she was brought back to the present by a nudge in the ribs from each of them.

“Since the times of the Cataclysm, the Validation of every cub has been important, but especially so when she is the first-born and Heir of her Clan. So it is with Kashini,” Lijou was saying.

Carrie took a deep breath and forced her mind into stillness, aware of the concern for her from the two male Sholans at her side. She could feel their mental presences supporting and encouraging her for the part she must now play in the proceedings.

“It is time for Kashini’s mother to come forward and claim her daughter.”

She could feel her heartbeat start to quicken as she took her first steps away from her life-mates and the anonymity she’d had during her pregnancy.

Lijou’s mouth opened in a gentle, encouraging smile as she slowly walked toward him then held out her arms to receive her cub.

With a purring trill of contentment, Kashini’s ears flicked in pleasure and her hands, tiny claws extended, reached out to catch hold of her mother’s long hair.

This was the part she was dreading. Holding Kashini close, she turned to face the gathering, trying not to see the sea of faces now in front of her. The inhabitants of both estates had gathered to witness the ceremony. A flash of sunlight on metal drew her eyes briefly upward to where the autovid hovered above Rhaema Vorkoh of Infonet. She looked away, trying not to think of the fact that her image was being broadcast all over Shola – and beyond, to Keiss, where her father and brother would also be watching.

Look at me, cub, sent Kusac. Forget everyone else. Remember only us and our family.

Her eyes met his, then flicked briefly to Kaid. From both of them she felt the same support.

“Carrie Aldatan, will you name Kashini’s father?” Lijou was asking.

Moistening her lips, she glanced at Lijou before looking back to her mate. “My life-mate, Kusac Aldatan,” she said, aware of and annoyed by the tremor in her voice. To one side of the Clan gathering, she could see the visiting Humans standing watching. Suddenly lightheaded, she gave a small shudder then Kusac was standing in front of her, blocking her view.

He touched her cheek with his hand before leaning forward to fold back the blanket that covered their cub.

You’re doing fine, he sent. It’s almost over now.

They’re both so different from me, she thought involuntarily as she watched his dark-furred hands reaching down for their child.

The differences are only skin deep, you know that. His thoughts were a mental caress. Carefully he took hold of the cub, then turning round, he lifted their new-born high above his head so the Clans could see her.

Kusac’s voice rang out across the grounds. “Look well, Clansfolk, so that you’ll know your Liegena, Heir to the only En’Shalla Clan.”

The roar of acceptance from the throats of the several hundred Sholans gathered there was deafening. Kashini added her comments by beginning to whimper and squirm, ears flattened to her skull in distress. After the warmth of her blanket, the cold of the afternoon air on her uncovered pelt was disquieting.

Carrie had felt the mental sigh of relief from all the Sholans present as Kusac had held up their daughter: she was their Liegena no matter what her outward form, but in this time of rapid change, they were relieved that she appeared Sholan like themselves.

Kusac cradled Kashini in his arms before turning back to his mate and holding out a hand for the blanket. As they wound her back in its comforting warmth, Carrie was aware of Lijou calling Kaid forward.

“As the third in this Triad, Kaid Tallinu,” Lijou said to him, “you have a responsibility to this cub. Since her parents are Leskas, should anything happen to them, it will fall to you to raise their daughter.”

Kaid nodded briefly as Kusac handed Kashini to him. Cautiously, he accepted the small bundle.

“She’ll be like a daughter to me,” he said, holding her close for a moment before returning her to Carrie. As he did, he leaned toward her, one hand touching her neck as he placed his cheek against hers.

Startled, she moved back slightly before checking herself. For him to touch her neck was to admit publicly to a physical intimacy with her.

“It’s part of the ceremony,” Kaid murmured. “You need to do the same.”

She returned the gesture, then, as he moved to her other side, she felt him retreat even further behind his mental shields and cursed herself for inadvertently hurting him. Having their relationship indicated so openly had taken her by surprise. It was too new for her to feel at ease with it yet.

After the ceremony, they left the Clans feasting and returned to the main house with a small number of guests and close family members for their own quieter celebrations.

Carrie settled herself in a large comfortable chair, Kusac standing beside her while their friends and guests came over to see the cub and exchange a few words with them. Kaid hovered nearby.

She was concerned about him. He’d been quiet and distant all morning, but since the incident at the ceremony, he’d retreated behind the barriers he’d had when they’d first met. Then she saw Lijou detach himself from Rhyasha and Konis and begin heading toward her. Passing Kaid, he stopped, and after addressing a few words to him, took him by the arm and brought him over too.

“I’ve a small gift for the three of you,” he said, looking from one to the other, mouth open in a small grin. “Kha’Qwa found a reference to them in one of our ancient records and we had them made up to give to you today.” Reaching into the pocket of his robe, he drew out a small wooden box which he opened then passed to Carrie.

With her free hand, she took it from him. Nestling on a bed of black plush cloth lay three identical silver pendants. The motif was of three interlaced spirals, and in the center lay a small, blue-white faceted crystal.

“Lijou, they’re lovely,” she said. “Are the crystals from Stronghold?”

“From Vartra’s Retreat to be exact,” said Lijou. “Triad members exchanged them to show their commitment to each other, but we thought you wouldn’t take them amiss as a gift from us.”

Kusac bent down to see them more closely. “They are beautiful,” he said, holding the box for his mate so she could pick one up.

As she held it up, the light from the main windows glinted through it, painting a rainbow across her face. “It even incorporates the spirit of the gateway,” she murmured.

“The design is as it was described, even down to the number of facets on the crystals,” said Lijou equally quietly.

Carrie held the pendant out to Kusac. “This one is yours,” she said. Reaching into the box, she picked up the next one and held it out to Kaid. “And this, yours.”

He reached out and, taking it from her, looped the chain around his hand. “My thanks to you and Kha’Qwa,” he said, his voice barely audible as he watched Kusac put his own pendant on then take Carrie’s from her and fasten it round her neck.

“I’m glad our gift pleases you,” said Lijou. ” They can be worn as necklaces or set into the ear. We thought this way you could choose for yourselves.”

“Thank you both, Lijou,” said Carrie, fingering the tiny crystal. “You must have been very sure of our success.”

“I knew the God had marked you all,” he said. “And I know you. If it was possible for any mortals to succeed, then I knew it would be you.”

“Thank you, Lijou,” said Kusac. “You should have brought Kha’Qwa with you. Be sure to tell her how much we appreciate the pendants.”

“You have enough people here today,” said Lijou. “Kha’Qwa preferred to remain at Stronghold in the hope she could visit you another time under less formal circumstances.”

“She’s welcome any time, Lijou,” said Carrie.

Lijou inclined his head. “I’ll pass on your invitation, Carrie,” he said, as he moved away to rejoin the rest of the guests.

When she looked back at Kaid, Carrie saw he was still holding the pendant clasped within his hand. Don’t feel compelled to wear it, Kaid, she sent, handing him the box. Keep it in here.

Silently he accepted it from her, but surprisingly, he put it in his pocket. I’ll wear it for now. Opening the catch, he reached up and fastened the pendant round his neck, letting it drop down to lie on the breast of his tunic. That done, with a nod to them both, he turned back to his unconscious surveillance of the room.

What’s up with Kaid? Kusac’s sending was concerned.

I think the past’s catching up with him. Then the time for any private communication was gone as she saw Tutor Sorli advance on them.

Glancing at Kusac for permission, he crouched down at Carrie’s feet so his face was level with her cub’s.

He reached a tentative hand out toward the infant, his expression hopeful. “May I?” he asked.

She nodded, watching him carefully as he reached toward Kashini. The little one grasped the proffered finger with both hands, extending her claws to get a better grasp, and pulled it toward her mouth.

“She’s like your bond-mother,” he said, mouth opening in a small grin. “And yourself,” he added. “You’re as fair as she is.”

Carrie smiled. “You’re the first one outside our family to notice,” she said.

“I’ve been keeping up to date with Physician Kyjishi’s work on genetics,” he said. “It’s different for you, though. Your daughter is the first cub born to a human mother. Our Sholan genes might be dominant, but Kashini’s adaptation to your body has been different from Marak’s. His mother is Sholan, after all.”

He stopped, looking up at her. “But you don’t care about any of that for now, do you?” His grin became deeper. “All you care is that you have her safe in your arms. And what else should concern a new mother? May she bring blessings to your Clan, Liegena Carrie,” he said, extricating his hand and getting to his feet.

“About time!” came a voice Carrie knew well.

Noni came limping over to stand beside Sorli. “About time you left,” said Noni tartly. “Look at her! Carrie’s almost asleep where she sits! Kusac, send for the nurse for your daughter,” she ordered. “And Tallinu,” she said, fixing Kaid with a glower, “Carry the Liegena upstairs to her room. She needs to rest. She can come down and join us later,” she said, forestalling Kusac’s unspoken objection.

Carrie could feel the tension in his body as Kaid carried her upstairs. She knew she was partly to blame. “Tallinu, I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to pull away from you during the ceremony. It just took me by surprise.”

“It’s nothing to worry about, Carrie,” he said. “It wasn’t important.”

“It matters to me. I don’t like feeling you so distant. You’re treating me almost as if I were a stranger.”

“Things are different now,” he said quietly, stopping at the door into Carrie and Kusac’s old suite. “We’re home. We’ve done what we set out to do. You have your En’Shalla Clan, and your cub — and I’ve got to pick up my life again.” He took her through the lounge to the bedroom. “I’ve asked Father Lijou to let me return to Stronghold for a while. He’s agreed. It’s time I began to study how to use my Talent properly.”

“You’re leaving?” The news stunned her. It was the last thing she’d anticipated.

“In a few days,” he said, laying her gently down on the bed. “You’ve got Dzaka and T’Chebbi to guard you, you don’t need me too.” He stood up, not looking at her. “I need time to make sense of what I’ve been through, Carrie. Time for meditation.”

“You might not return.” She could feel the thought there on the edges of his mind, unresolved as yet, but a possibility that he hadn’t rejected.

“I don’t know what I want to do,” he said, turning away from her, tail swaying slightly. “But I’ll always be part of you both because of our Triad.”

“I thought you’d found peace with yourself when we were in the Margins. You said you had. What’s happened, Tallinu? You had none of these doubts two days ago.”

“That was then. I belong to the past, Carrie, fifteen hundred years ago, not now.” His tail was flicking from side to side as he turned round to face her. “Can’t you understand that I’m not the same person I was? I need to find out who I am now.”

“I know who you are,” she said quietly. “You’re who you’ve always been, Kaid Tallinu, our friend — and more.”

His eyes caught and held hers, his tail stilling. “Don’t make it difficult for me, Carrie,” he said, his voice barely audible. “I have to leave — for a while at least.”

She could tell his mind was made up. “I won’t try to persuade you to stay, but at least promise you’ll talk to me before you make a final decision on whether or not to return. Don’t just disappear like the last time.”

“When I’ve had some time alone and know my own mind, then yes, I’ll talk to you. I owe you that at least,” he said reluctantly, looking away again.

Tiredly, Carrie lay back against the pillows, watching him. Perhaps that was what they all needed: time. They’d been through so much in the last few weeks, Tallinu more than either her or Kusac. He’d become so much a part of their lives that it was difficult to imagine him not being there. But what of him? So much of his life had been spent serving others, yet he deserved the opportunity to build a life of his own too.

“I have to go now. Kusac needs me downstairs.”

She nodded. “Don’t let them exhaust you,” she said. “You’re not long out of your own sick bed.”

When the opportunity presented itself, Kaid took Lijou aside for a private word.

“How soon may I come to Stronghold?” he asked. “We need to discuss Vartra and it’s time I learned how to use my Talent.”

Lijou regarded him shrewdly. “Something’s changed, hasn’t it? You, better than anyone, Kaid, should know Stronghold’s no retreat. No one comes to us to escape from the decisions they should be making out in the world. There’s no rush to set our policy regarding Vartra yet. En’Shalla, Kaid. You have to play out the hand the God has dealt you. Besides,” he added more prosaically, “we’re still debating over who should become the new Brotherhood Guild Master for our warriors. It would be inappropriate for non-Brotherhood personnel to be with us at this time.”

Kaid growled softly. “I’m not trying to escape from anything, and you know it. You’re stringing me along, Lijou.”

“Not so!” Lijou reached out to lay his fingertips briefly on Kaid’s arm, his gesture one of concern. “I’m telling you no more than the truth. Visit me by all means, I’ll help you any way I can, but until you’ve been back for at least a few weeks and tried to adapt, as your Head Priest, I cannot let you turn your back on the world and stay at Stronghold. Ghyan can continue teaching you here.”

Kaid growled softly again and turned away from him. It was a long time since any institution had held authority over him, and already it rankled. He saw Noni staring disapprovingly at him from the other side of the room.

Going back to hide in that dark corner, are you, Tallinu? she sent. How long before you face the problem this time? Another thirty-four years? D’you think she’ll wait that long for you? When the Gods set a triad together, it isn’t easily broken apart, as you’ll doubtless find out!

Mentally he retreated deeper within himself, refusing to even acknowledge he’d heard her. Seeing Meral standing by the doorway out into the family gardens, he caught his eye and went over to join him.

“I’m relieving you,” he said. “Report in to Ni’Zulhu then you can go off duty. I don’t see why I should be the only one to suffer!” His slight grin made a joke out of the words. “Besides, Taizia looks lonely,” he added, nodding in the direction of the young male’s heavily pregnant mate. “How long now?”

“Any time, Vanna says. The sooner the better, frankly. She’s finding it almost impossible to get comfortable these days.”

“Value your sleep while you can, lad. Your cub will arrive soon enough. At least Dzaka was four when he came to me — a much more civilized age!”

Meral looked at him curiously. “Don’t you want more cubs? I was sure you would now that you’re part of a triad.”

Kaid shook his head, mentally shying away from any thought of that. “I have a son to be proud of in Dzaka, I don’t need any more. Now the sooner you go, the sooner you can join Taizia!”

As he stood looking over the gardens, he felt Noni’s presence behind him.

“What is it now?” he sighed.

“There will be cubs, Tallinu, prepare yourself for that,” she said quietly, coming up to stand beside him. “Your cubs. I saw them before, and I’ve seen them since.”

“Leave me alone, Rhuna!” he said, fighting to keep his ears from flattening sideways in anger. “Will you never be done with your meddling? I don’t want cubs! You don’t know what you’re talking about anyway. We aren’t fully compatible.”

“I only tell you what I see, not how it’ll happen. In Vartra’s name, Tallinu, live the life you’ve been given! Don’t analyze or agonize over it. You’ve discovered your origins, you have the respect and love of those who matter to you, and your son is finally safe from Ghezu — what more could you ask for?”

“Peace from your meddling!” he snarled, losing his battle for self control and storming off into the grounds.

From upstairs, despite her tiredness, Carrie had sensed his increasing mental turmoil and had kept a discreet link to him. He’d become as distant as if he’d returned to the old relationship of bodyguard and Liegeman, abandoning the closeness they’d all three found through the Triad and the shared experience of their journey to the Fire Margins.

Getting up, she slipped on her loose outer robe and fished under the bed for her shoes. Somebody needed to be close enough to help him, and the only suitable person she could think of was T’Chebbi.

Fire Margins Excerpt by on


“Approaching the trading world now, General M’ezozakk,” said his navigator.

“Inform Priest J’koshuk that his skills are needed,” said M’ezozakk, watching as the planet grew larger on the main view screen.

“No need, General, I’m here,” said the priest, stepping out of the bridge access corridor. Behind him the door ground noisily as it closed.

“Hasn’t anything been done about that damned door yet?” M’ezozakk demanded testily, ending on a sibilant hiss of displeasure.

“No, General. Maintenance and engineering are having to monitor the hull patch continuously lest it is breached again. We can’t afford to lose any more …”

“I don’t want excuses,” snapped M’ezozakk, his crest rising as he turned to look at the First Officer. “I want results! If it isn’t fixed within this shift, I’ll throw you to J’koshuk to play with!”

The Officer’s skin paled visibly, his tongue flicking out nervously as he glanced at the carmine-robed priest who now stood at the left of the General.

“I’ll see to it personally, General,” he said, ducking his head down in a low bow of obeisance.

“Do so.” M’ezozakk turned back to the screen. “Wait.” he said. “On your way, see that the captives are cleaned up. We need to get a good price for them. Make sure that they understand this, because if they don’t cooperate, I’m sure J’koshuk could spare a few last moments with them.”

“Yes General,” said the officer, beginning to sidle towards the exit.

“We’re within communications range, General,” ventured the crewmember manning the comm unit.

“You realize our information regarding this world is minimal,” said J’koshuk quietly, leaning towards the General. “I can’t be sure that the language we have on our data banks is their universal port language.”

M’ezozakk turned his unblinking gaze on the priest. The vertical slits narrowed slightly. “Are you now telling me you don’t think you can communicate with these … savages?”

“By no means, General,” said the other, his tone more conciliatory. “I don’t yet know just how … basic … that communication will be.”

“Your position gives you many privileges, J’koshuk. Should I, on your advice, have detoured to this world and be unable to accomplish our mission, those privileges can be rescinded. I believe Mzayb’ik has ambitions …” he left the rest of his sentence hanging.

“If I cannot communicate with these barbarians, General, then none of Mzayb’ik’s ambitions will help you,” said J’koshuk, his own eyes narrowing as he bowed his head slightly to the General.

“If you can’t make yourself understood, then his lack of knowledge would hardly be an impediment,” M’ezozakk said smoothly.

“We’re being hailed from the planet’s surface, General,” the comm interrupted politely.

M’ezozakk relaxed back in his seat. “Are the cargo shuttles ready?”

“The shuttles are ready, General,” said his security officer. “Shuttle One awaits your command for the automatic launch. Shuttle Two is fueled and ready. It awaits the crew and captives.”

“The comm is yours, J’koshuk. I’ll watch with interest while you negotiate with these beings,” said M’ezozakk waving his hand lazily in the direction of the main viewer. “Open a channel to the surface,” he ordered his comm officer.

J’koshuk bowed again, barely concealing the mixture of anger and fear on his face.

Let him hate me, just as long as he also fears me, M’ezozakk thought.

The cuboid sat at the back of the room beyond the reach of the four Sholans. The Valtegans hadn’t been about to let the unclean bodies of their captives go anywhere near their holy object. They’d lived alongside it for weeks, its brooding presence reflecting their mood just as it reflected the light. Just why they’d been kept there, Jeran had never been able to figure out. He had noticed that the ordinary troops on this vessel were even more afraid of the cuboid than of them. That was another puzzle. Why should the Valtegans fear them? Four half-starved and beaten Sholans chained to the floor hardly represented much of a threat to them, surely.

At first, Miroshi had tried to work out what the cube was. The mental exercise had diverted her thoughts from anticipating the next session with their tormentors. It had been futile, though. There was little she or any of them could glean from its featureless surfaces. It just was.

A short time before, the Valtegans had come and taken it away, carefully hauling it from the room on its obviously frictionless base. With it gone, they’d all felt easier. It was as if a weight they hadn’t realized was there had been lifted from them. He still felt a sense of unease about it though, as if it was connected to them in some way he didn’t understand.

The sound of the door opening roused Jeran from his reverie. It was all he could do to raise his head, ears facing forward, and look toward the noise. He saw the priest first, then the five armed soldiers behind him. He let his head fall back to the deck floor as the priest hissed out an order.

They wanted all of them this time. Usually they were taken singly. Maybe the damned lizards had tired of their uncooperative captives and their nightmare was finally about to end. Death held no fear for him any more: death meant freedom from their torturer, J’koshuk.

His body tensed, waiting for the kick or the blow — or even the shot that would finish him. Instead, he was grasped by the neck and hauled to his feet. A yelp of pain escaped him as the non-retractable claws dug into his flesh. So much stronger than the Sholans, they made no effort to temper that strength when handling their captives. His uniform jacket was stripped off him then just as abruptly, he was released. Naked apart from his pelt, he staggered, trying to keep his balance but he was too weak to stand. The heavy chain attached to the rigid metal collar round his neck dragged at him, pulling him down to the floor again.

He’d barely chance to see the same had been done to his three companions when they were hit by a jet of freezing water. Claws extended, his feet scrabbled against the metal-plated floor as he tried at least to get up onto his haunches. He’d expected to be killed, but not by drowning! Turning his head away from the stream of pressurized water, he bit down hard on his lower lip, trying not to yell curses at them in the few words of Valtegan he’d managed to pick up over the weeks they’d been on board.

Turning back to look at the others, he saw that even Miroshi had roused herself enough to try and keep her head free of the water. Their captors had quickly realized she was the most vulnerable member of the group and had targeted her for their special attention. What they’d done to her would have been despicable even had she not been a telepath. Her mental scars, like those on her body, would might never heal.

Jeran’s chain was just long enough for him to reach her and while the water was playing on the other two, he crawled along the floor toward her. The jet hit him again. Ears plastered flat to his head, he held her close, turning his back to take the worst of the torrent of water, lending her what little strength he had in an effort to stop her falling back down to the deck.

The water stopped suddenly, gurgling as it flowed down the drains to the reservoir. He let Miroshi go, not wanting to add to her pain by continuing to touch her. As he turned back to the guards, one of them stepped forward and threw a bundle of cloths at him. Jeran grabbed at them instinctively, managing to catch them before they fell onto the wet floor.

The guard snapped an order at him. Confused, Jeran shook his head, blinking as he wiped his forearm across his eyes. The officer at the door spoke and the guard stepped forward. Leaning down, he snatched a cloth back from him and began rubbing it across his own arm.

The officer spoke again, this time addressing Jeran briefly, then they all turned and left.

Tesha looked over at him. “What did he say?” she demanded, curling her tail, which now resembled a piece of old rope, protectively round her haunches.

Jeran handed two towels over to her. “We’ve to dry ourselves.”

“Even I got that!” she said acidly, passing the other to Tallis.

“I didn’t get it all, but something to do with us being put down on this planet we’re orbiting in exchange for … supplies, I think,” he said, hunkering down beside Miroshi again.

She stirred, taking the towel from him.

“Can you manage?” he asked.

She nodded, beginning to wipe the cloth along her arms.

“So why the cold shower?” asked Tesha, shivering as she began to rub herself.

“Doesn’t want the goods to be seen covered in matted fur and dried blood,” said Tallis bleakly as he made an equally half-hearted attempt to dry himself.

“There was an implicit threat concerning J’koshuk,” added Jeran.

“He’s selling us,” said Miroshi, speaking for the first time in days. “He said if he doesn’t get a good price, he’ll give us back to J’koshuk.”

Tesha broke the silence that followed. “Well, what do we do? Make a break for it so that they kill us, or go down to this world like tame rhaklas?”

Jeran began to dry himself, trying not to knock the scabs off the half-healed wounds. His fur was matted into the cuts on his face and arms but there was nothing he could do about it.

Before he could answer, the door opened again, this time to admit the ship’s medic, flanked by two guards, one carrying a tray holding four beakers.

“Eat,” said the medic as the guard came over with the tray. “Been cooked. Need eat. Soon you leave.”

A beaker was thrust at Tallis. Reluctantly he took it, sniffing the contents. “It has been cooked,” he said, surprised. “It’s some kind of stew, not raw meat.”

Jeran was given his. It wasn’t worth the beating that would ensue if he refused it. He raised the beaker to his lips.

As he drank, the medic came over and deftly grasped his arm, pressing the hypo gun against it, then he was gone. A brief surge of giddiness, then almost immediately he felt a warm glow spread through him.

“It’s some kind of sedative,” he said, watching Miroshi flinch as the lizard touched her. There was no point in objecting.

The guard collected the empty beakers then followed the medic out, leaving the soldier with his rifle trained on them.

Tesha sat down suddenly. “I don’t feel so good,” she said faintly.

Jeran looked up, seeing her inner lids beginning to show at the edges of her eyes. “You’ll be all right,” he said, aware that he should be feeling more concerned than he was. With an effort, he tried to keep his mind on what he wanted to say. “You know their drugs do strange things to us, especially you. It’s not lethal. They wouldn’t kill us like that. There’s no amusement for them in it.”

“If you focused your thoughts, you’d be able to control the effects of the drug,” said Tallis.

“I can’t, you know that,” said Tesha, wrinkling her nose. The skin visible around her eyes had an unhealthy greenish tinge.

“You just won’t …” began Tallis.

“Stop it, both of you!” said Miroshi tiredly, sinking back onto the floor. “Must we fight among ourselves? All we’ve got left is each other, and we may not even have that for much longer! In Vartra’s name, shut up!”

Jeran moved over to Tesha, the chain dragging behind him. “Leave it, Tesha,” he said quietly. “Just ignore Tallis. Being telepaths, it’s been worse for them. Every time they’ve been touched, they’ve been mentally tortured, never mind what they’ve done to them physically. It’s only when they use drugs on us that Tallis and Miroshi can feel they’re fighting back.”

“I know,” she muttered, leaning her head against his shoulder. “It’s been bad for all of us. What do you think our chances of being rescued are?”

“If they know we’re missing, they’ll make an effort to find us, but from the size of those craft we saw around Szurtha, I’d say they’ll have a lot more to worry about than the four of us.”

“They’re coming back,” said Tallis, ears flicking in distress as he moved closer to the other three.


As Kusac opened the door to the staff lounge, he caught the tail end of their conversation.

“You gave him the right to decide, Kaid,” Rulla was saying. “No one made him choose Stronghold.” Hearing the door open, he looked up.

Kaid was sat at the table reassembling his rifle.

“What’s going on?” Kusac asked, watching Rulla’s eyes flick from him back to Kaid.

“Everything’s under control, Liegen,” Kaid replied blandly, snapping the power pack into place. “There’s nothing for you to be concerned about.”

Kusac could feel the tension in the room. Something wasn’t right. He shut the door behind him, mentally scanning Rulla’s surface thoughts. “Where’s Vanna?” he demanded. “I know this concerns her. Where is she?”

“She’s paying a brief visit to Stronghold,” replied Kaid, getting up and turning to face him. “I’m on my way to collect her now.”

“Stronghold? What in the name of all the Gods is she doing visiting there at this time of night?”

“That’s what I intend to find out,” said Kaid, his voice grim as he picked up his rifle. “I’m afraid one of my people took her there.” He walked towards Kusac, stopping in front of him, obviously waiting for him to step aside.

“I’m going with you,” said Rulla, getting up and moving over to join him.

“No you’re not,” said Kaid, throwing a glance at him over his shoulder. “You could be concussed after that blow on the head. You’ll remain here. I’m going alone.” He looked back at Kusac. “Excuse me, Liegen.”

Kusac shook his head. “I want to know what’s going on. Who hit Rulla? Vanna’s been kidnaped, hasn’t she?”

“You can’t go alone,” insisted Rulla. “It could be a ruse on Ghezu’s part to get you to Stronghold.”

Kaid snorted in disgust.

Kusac could feel himself getting angry. “No one’s leaving here till I know exactly what’s going on!”

“Liegen, I haven’t got time for this now,” said Kaid, his ears giving the faintest flick of annoyance. “It’s already over an hour since Vanna was taken.”

Kusac leaned back against the door. “Then you’d better tell me now why Stronghold’s suddenly so interested in Vanna — and us.” He watched Kaid’s eyes narrow as the other male sized him up. “Remember your oath,” he said quietly.

“I don’t need you to remind me, my Liege.” Kaid’s voice was emotionless now. “You have your Leska to look after. She’s still very weak.”

“Dammit Kaid!” Now he was really angry. “You two wakened me with all the mental noise you were making, and that was despite the psychic damper in our room! Luckily Carrie’s still sedated. Vanna’s one of my people – as are you. I want to know what’s happened, and I want to know now!”

“I haven’t the time, Liege. T’Chebbi’s waiting outside in the aircar.” Kaid’s tone was equally implacable.

Abruptly Kusac reached behind him and pulled the door open. “Then tell me on the way.” He turned and headed down the corridor toward the side exit that led to his family’s private vehicle park.

He’d barely taken half a dozen steps when he heard the sound of feet behind him then his left arm was grasped firmly.

Trying to bite back the yelp of pain that rose to his lips, he turned round, his good arm unconsciously going up to cradle the wounded one.

“Liege, you can’t go,” said Kaid. “You’re injured. I did no more than touch you and you’re grey with pain. You’d be a liability to me.”

“Liege is it now, Kaid?” Kusac kept his tone light as he attempted to move away from his bodyguard. “Then release me, and stop wasting more time.”

“Yes, it’s Liege now, since you chose to remind me of my oath.” His eyes flicked across Kusac’s face. “What the hell’s got into you?” he demanded. “This isn’t like you at all.”

“Maybe not,” replied Kusac, breathing more rapidly to try and ease the pain from his shoulder. “You told us it was over, that the last assassin was dead and now we find that we still have enemies. It’s time we started not only looking after ourselves, but also our friends. Carrie and I’ve faced death too often recently, Kaid. It doesn’t hold any fears for either of us any more. We won’t hide behind you or anyone else again.”

“It’s not that simple, Liege.” Kaid let go of his arm. “This may be why Dzaka took Vanna to Stronghold — to flush you out and bring you there after her. Particularly as he knew you’d spent the night together.”

“Then we’d best not keep them waiting.” Kusac turned again toward the exit.

“Liege! I can’t protect you and fetch Vanna back!” His tone was exasperated.

“Rulla,” Kusac said over his shoulder, “How’s your head?”

“I’ll survive, Liegen,” said Rulla.

“Good. You’ll accompany us.”

“Yes, Liegen,” came the satisfied reply.

Kaid let out a low rumble of anger as he stepped yet again in front of Kusac. “You still don’t understand. If I arrive at Stronghold accompanied by you, Rulla and T’Chebbi, it’ll mean a showdown that we can’t afford at this time.”

Kusac stopped again, staring Kaid straight in the eyes. “A showdown, Kaid?” He cocked one ear forwards. “Why should there be a showdown because I arrive with an escort to collect my friend Vanna?”

“Vanna didn’t go voluntarily.”

“I gathered that when you mentioned Rulla had been hit on the head,” said Kusac drily. “When I left her a couple of hours ago, Vanna had no intention of going anywhere but the Guild. I can also tell you that she’s probably unconscious, in a shielded area, or they’ve given her a psychic suppressant. What else should I know, Kaid? How about telling me why Stronghold’s so interested in us.”

Kaid’s eyes narrowed again. “Very well, Liege,” he said abruptly, moving aside and drawing Kusac forward by his good arm. “The Brotherhood want to get full guild status. To do this, they need to recruit you and any other mixed Leska pairs. They have the facilities and staff to train you there.”

“Why would the Brotherhood have facilities for telepaths?” Then realization dawned. “The missing talents!” Kusac stopped in his tracks and looked at Kaid with the beginnings of understanding.

Kaid nodded.

“You’re the people the Guild has missed – the ones with the minor talents!”

“Some of us have more than a minor talent, Liegen,” said Rulla mildly. “We just aren’t telepaths.”

“All along, the Brotherhood’s been gathering in those people. Why, Kaid?”

“That’s what we are,” said Kaid. “Every one of us.”

“Every one of you? Then telepaths who can fight aren’t new.”

“Yes, you are,” said Kaid. “That’s why Stronghold wants you. They have no telepaths among their active members.”

“They want to recruit us?”

“You and Carrie — perhaps. Vanna and Brynne, definitely. They think they can control them more easily than you.”

Kusac gave a short, derisory laugh. “They don’t know Vanna!”

“No, they don’t,” said Kaid, his mouth opening in the ghost of a smile.

“Dzaka is the one who took Vanna to Stronghold,” said Rulla.

“He’ll regret it,” said Kaid, his voice barely audible.

Kusac gave himself a small shake, trying to dispel the chill Kaid’s comment had caused. He started walking again.

“Stronghold wants full guild status so they can challenge the Telepath Guild’s power in the World Council,” said Kaid. “They can’t achieve guild status unless they can prove they have a skill that is unique to them.”


Kaid grunted in reply as they emerged into the cold predawn air of the park. An aircar, its engine gently humming, was waiting for them. He passed his rifle to Rulla, clambering into the pilot’s seat that T’Chebbi had just vacated.

Kusac joined him in the front, leaving Rulla to accompany T’Chebbi in the rear passenger area.

“I won’t be used by the Brotherhood any more than by the Telepath Guild,” said Kusac in a low voice as Kaid took off, heading northwest for the Dzahai mountains.

“I know, but the Brotherhood mustn’t realize that yet,” said Kaid, equally quietly.

Kusac looked thoughtfully at him. He touched the edges of Kaid’s mind with the usual result: a quiet stillness. Carrie was the only one who really sensed Kaid, and then only on their Link days when their abilities were enhanced. Now, thank Vartra, she was asleep, but her help would have been useful.

“You can’t break formally with the Telepath Guild unless you have the protection of Stronghold,” said Kaid. “Esken won’t tolerate it: he can’t afford to. If you still intend to follow the path of En’Shalla, you need to buy time, to wait until Carrie’s recovered. It’s dangerous enough when you’re healthy.”

“I know,” said Kusac, his tone short. Putting their lives in the hands of Gods he barely believed in and certainly didn’t trust would not be an easy step for him to take.

“If you turn down Stronghold’s offer, you’ll be placing my people in a dangerous position.”


“If you refuse Ghezu and Lijou, they’ll recall all the Brotherhood members I’ve got guarding you,” said Kaid, banking to the right to compensate for the gusting wind.

“The threat to our lives is over now though, isn’t it, Kaid? Surely we don’t need so many people.”

“I think we do. Let’s just say I’m being over-cautious. Also several of them wish to break from the Brotherhood and join you and your people. If they’re recalled, they’ll have to disobey Stronghold and we aren’t ready for that yet.”

“The showdown you were discussing. I don’t understand why they’d want to join us in the first place.”

“Because of Kaid,” said Rulla, leaning forward. “You only know one side of him. Before he was ‘retired’ from the Brotherhood, he had quite a following, especially when it came time to elect the new Leader.”

“Enough, Rulla,” said Kaid sharply, banking the vehicle against the wind and causing them all to clutch their seats.

Kusac turned to look not only at Kaid but at Rulla as the other male picked himself up from the floor. “You were a contender for Leadership of the Brotherhood?” Already he was reassessing his opinion of Kaid. A lot of things were beginning to fall into place.

“I was chosen,” Kaid admitted reluctantly. “It’s a part of my life that belongs in the past. Rulla and others won’t let me forget it. I think they’re fools to risk their lives with us, but they’re entitled to make their own choices. That’s why it’s wiser to agree to the Brotherhood’s offer for the time being until you’re ready to step outside the guild system. That way you can break publicly from the Telepath Guild with the protection of the Brotherhood, who can then claim what they want — full guild status.”

“They give us their protection in return for our support in breaking Esken’s hold on the World Council,” said Kusac.

“As you say. He’s using fear of himself and his Guild to coerce the weaker council members to vote his way. They’re too afraid to speak up against him, and those who do have an idea of what’s happening can’t prove it.”

“What about my father? He can’t know anything about this. I know fear wouldn’t stop him speaking out against Esken.”

Kaid looked at him briefly. “I assume he knows nothing. The council members Esken controls presume all the senior telepaths are involved. They aren’t going to risk their lives by asking one to find out.”

“By all the Gods, Kaid, if this is true it mustn’t be allowed to continue! How could Esken claim he was afraid of us abusing our Talents when he behaves like this? What of Governor Nesul? Where does he fit into this?”

Kaid flicked his ears in a shrug. “Like the others, he can do nothing. Who’d believe him? Telepaths are vital to every level of life. No one could afford the chaos that would result if this came to light. No, Ghezu and Lijou’s solution is the best. They have enough on Esken to play him at his own game. Remember, the majority of telepaths, even those in senior positions, are ignorant of what’s happening. Most of Esken’s manipulation is at the council level.”

“How did you find all this out?”

“I keep my ears open, and I have my contacts,” he said.

“You must have,” said Rulla. “Even I didn’t know this.”

“I’ve always hated politics,” muttered Kusac, sitting back in his seat.

“You are the politics,” said Kaid. “You and your Leska, along with Vanna and Brynne and the others like you, are the heart of this matter. With you as his Guild members, Esken has what he’s never had before. A private army, Guild-bound to him, and the rest of the council will know it. He’ll be able to play his power games on a scale he never dreamed of before. The military? ‘Sorry, my Telepath pairs aren’t ready to be freed from their Guild commitments yet, however…’ Use them, Kusac, instead of letting them use you.”

“I get your point,” sighed Kusac.

Meral stood safely out of reach at the foot of Garras’ bed before pulling back the covers. Cautiously he reached out to draw a claw-tip along the pads on the sole of his foot. The resultant kick just missed him as Garras landed in a crouch nearby.

“It’s me, Meral,” he said.

Garras straightened up. “What is it?” he asked, keeping his voice low as he cycled his side-arm back to stand-by.

“I woke early so I went for a walk. There’s a scouter in the main yard, one from the estate. The scents were fresh, and I’m pretty sure one of them was Vanna’s.”

“Vanna’s? What the hell’s she doing here?” Perplexed, Garras wrinkled his nose.

“I don’t know. I didn’t try to find her, I came straight back to tell you. I don’t think anyone saw me.”

“You did well,” said Garras, turning to grab his jacket and belt from the chair. “Let’s check it out. Remember the mental exercises I taught you. Keep your mind as still as possible. There’s several people here capable of picking us up, and if it is Vanna, then Lijou will be awake.”

They padded silently down the corridor, keeping in the shadows until they reached the main staircase. Garras held Meral back. “Remember, if we meet anyone, I’m taking you on an early morning training session.”

Meral nodded and, trying not to clench his feet against the sudden cold of the stone stairs, followed him as silently as he could.

Dzaka’s head came up suddenly and he looked toward the large curtain-covered window. “We’re being watched, Father Lijou,” he said.

Lijou looked over in his direction, raising an eyeridge.

“Two males,” Dzaka said, shaking his head. “Their minds are too still to pick up any emotions.”

“Kaid.” Ghezu said the word like it was an oath.

“Not Kaid,” said Lijou. “There hasn’t been time, and Dzaka would know him.” He turned to Vanna, feeling a flare from her mind. “Garras?” He turned back to Dzaka. “Is Garras here?”

Dzaka flicked his ears in assent. “He brought a male called Meral to enroll him in the Brotherhood.”

“So, I have ex-Brothers sponsoring new members, have I?” Ghezu noticed Vanna’s slight movement from the corner of his eye. “I think not, Physician,” he said, turning to her. “You’ll remain here for the moment. Dzaka, bring Garras and Meral here, if you please,” he said.

“Immediately, Leader Ghezu,” he said, bowing his head towards him before going to the door.

“Physician Kyjishi,” said Lijou, returning to his chair beside Ghezu’s desk. “Let’s go over what you told us about these Valtegans.”

Vanna leaned forward across the desk. “I want to know when you’re going to let me return to the Aldatan estate,” she said angrily. “I’ve told you what I know. When Kusac and his parents realize I’m missing, they’ll be far from pleased!”

“But that’s what I’m waiting for, Vanna,” said Ghezu. “I want Kusac here. Since you refuse to join us without discussing the matter with him,” he said, spreading his hands expressively, “we must wait for him to come to you.”

“That’s why you had me brought here!” she said. “You aren’t interested in me, it was Kusac you wanted all along!”

“Could Kusac have identified the bones?” asked Lijou. “I doubt it. We needed you to do that. The fact that we only have to sit and wait for Kusac to arrive as well is a bonus.”

“And if he doesn’t come?”

“Oh, he will, my dear,” purred Ghezu. “He will.”

Silently Dzaka padded along the corridor toward the stairs down to the south garden. He could sense that Garras and Meral had reached the floor below. He stopped, waiting till he felt them approaching the bend in the stairs, then he spoke.

“Garras, it’s me, Dzaka.”

There was a profound silence for the space of three heartbeats.

“Where’s Vanna?” Garras demanded, cautiously coming into sight.

“She’s with Father Lijou and Leader Ghezu,” he said. “I’ve been sent to ask you to join them. Everything is fine,” he said reassuringly. “You won’t need your gun,” he added, turning to move back into the corridor as they began to ascend the last flight.

When he reached the top, Garras looked him up then down before reholstering his side arm. “What’s she doing visiting them at this ungodly time?”

“They needed her advice on a medical matter,” Dzaka said as Meral drew abreast of him. “You’ll be able to ask her yourself when we reach Leader Ghezu’s office.”

They walked in silence to Ghezu’s door. Dzaka opened it for them then stood back to let them enter first.

As he did, an arm snaked across his throat, arching his body backwards. At the same time he felt the touch of steel just under his ear. He didn’t struggle.

“You betrayed my trust.” The voice was flat, carrying only a faint hint of the cold fury underneath.

Breathing was difficult with Kaid’s arm pressed hard against his throat.

“I didn’t touch the Human or Kusac,” Dzaka gasped

Kaid pressed the point of his knife hard against Dzaka’s skin until it just penetrated his flesh. A drop of blood swelled at the tip then began to roll down the blade. “Vanna was in my care too. You know that.”

Icy fear ran down Dzaka’s spine as he realized his life was poised at the end of Kaid’s knife. “You’d kill me.”

“If it was anyone else, you would be dead now.”

“Where’s your trust, foster-father?” he whispered. “Are you the only one due it? Do I deserve none?”

Abruptly he was released. “If you’ve played false with me, you’ll live to regret it, Dzaka,” said Kaid. “There’ll be no swift death for you.”

Dzaka put his hand up to rub the blood from the small wound on his neck before stepping into Ghezu’s office.

“Tallinu,” said Ghezu, getting to his feet as Kaid entered. “What a pleasant surprise! I send Dzaka for Garras and he finds you as well. And Liegen Aldatan! Will wonders never cease?”

“Good morning Leader Ghezu, Father Lijou,” said Kusac with a curt nod to the two males. He stopped just inside the door, flanked by Rulla and T’Chebbi, Kaid standing beside him. “I trust that the emergency has been satisfactorily dealt with, Vanna, because I’m afraid we’ll have to leave almost immediately.”

Vanna had risen to her feet the moment she’d seen Garras. “Is Carrie worse?” she asked Kusac, moving swiftly to stand beside her mate.

“She’s been in a great deal of pain for most of the night,” he said. “I’m afraid the medication you left hasn’t given her any relief.” He looked over to the desk where Lijou and Ghezu were still standing. “I’m sure you understand that my mate’s needs must come first.”

“But of course, Liegen,” said Lijou with a courteous bow. “We won’t delay you any longer. I hope the Liegena will recover quickly.”

“Before you go, Liegen, I need to have a few words with you,” said Ghezu sharply as Kusac turned to leave.

“A moment only, Leader Ghezu,” said Kusac. “Don’t forget I feel the full measure of the pain that Carrie’s suffering, and I won’t let it continue any longer than is absolutely necessary.”

“We’ve heard you’re dissatisfied with the Telepath Guild because of their treatment of Vanna and her Leska, as well as yourselves.”

“You’ve heard right.”

“We’ll offer you sanctuary, here, at Stronghold, Liegen Aldatan.”

Kusac looked in astonishment at Ghezu. “As far as I’m aware, we don’t need sanctuary, thank you Leader Ghezu.”

“Let me explain,” said Lijou, stepping forward. “What my colleague means is that we are offering you membership of the Brotherhood.”

“Ah, yes. Kaid mentioned something of the sort to me on the way here, didn’t you Kaid?”

“Yes, my Liege,” said Kaid, hand resting lightly on the stock of the pulse rifle he wore slung over his shoulder.

Lijou frowned. “It’s a pity you haven’t more time, Liegen. No offense to your … adjutant, but he doesn’t have all the facts at his disposal.”

“On the contrary, he pleaded your cause most eloquently.”

Lijou’s eyeridges almost disappeared in his surprise. “Really? Then perhaps you’d be willing to discuss the matter in detail?”

“Oh, I don’t think I need to delay my decision, Father Lijou,” said Kusac, his tail tip beginning to sway lazily. “As I said, my time is short. All I need to know is why you want our membership. Kaid could obviously not tell me that.”

Kusac, despite his tiredness and the continuing pain in his shoulder, was enjoying this little interchange with Lijou. He had him at a distinct disadvantage, and Lijou knew it.

He watched the Head Priest of Vartra’s eyes narrow as he folded his hands in the pouch at the front of his black robe. He was playing for enough time to think of a suitable reply.

“If Kaid hasn’t told you about Esken’s dealings on the council then he’s not the person I remember from ten years ago,” Ghezu said abruptly.

Lijou brought a hand out of his pouch and waved him to silence. “Leave this to me, Ghezu. Liegen, we need to Challenge Esken on the council. We need to show the council members he’s terrified into compliance that we can stand between them and Esken. To do this, we need seats on the Council, and to get those, we need to be a guild. If you join the Brotherhood, then they can’t deny us guild status. In return, you’ll be Brothers, with all the protection that entails. We have the facilities here to train mixed Leska pairs like you, not only in telepathy, but also combat. And should we need any extra teachers, I’m sure we’d have no lack of volunteers from the other guilds. Will you accept our offer?”

“Your proposition is certainly attractive, but we’ll need to talk further on this,” said Kusac. “Not now, in a few days time.”

Lijou nodded. “As you say, Liegen. The Liegena’s health must come first. When will you let us know your decision?”

“When I’m convinced that changing guilds is the right thing for us to do,” said Kusac, turning away again.

“Will you also reconsider our offer, Physician?” Lijou asked Vanna.

“If Kusac and Carrie are joining, then I will,” said Vanna, casting a quick look in Kusac’s direction.

As they began to file out, Ghezu called to Dzaka. “Dzaka, I want you to remain for the time being,” he said. “I’m sure Liegen Aldatan has enough people that he can spare you.”

In the hallway, Kusac stopped and looked at Kaid. He’d been standing beside them during their confrontation. Dzaka’s answer was easily heard.

“I’m sorry, Leader Ghezu, but I’m oath-bound to protect the Liegena, and she hasn’t released me from my oath. I have to return with them.”

“Let him go, Ghezu,” said Lijou, his voice sounding tired.

Stop playing your games with him and Kaid, Kusac heard him sending.

“Go,” said Ghezu, suppressed fury in his voice.

Dzaka joined them in the hallway, shutting the door behind them. Kusac saw his eyes go to Kaid’s back as the other started walking. Whatever it was that was wrong between them, it went deep.

No one spoke until they were in the aircar, then Vanna turned on Kusac.

“Just what the hell are you doing here?” she demanded. “Have you looked at yourself recently? And what are you doing leaving Carrie if she’s worsened?”

“Vanna,” he said tiredly, “Carrie’s fine. She’s still asleep. We had to get you out of there and that was the best we could come up with.”

She made a noncommittal grunt as she reached out and began to unbuckle Kusac’s belt. “Pass me the medikit please, Garras,” she said. “Your shoulder’s begun to bleed again, Kusac.”

He put a hand over hers, stopping her. “Leave it till we get back.”

“No way, Kusac,” she said, ears flicking in anger as she pushed his hand aside and pulled his belt free.

“Physician, Liege, I can’t leave till you’re seated,” said Kaid, turning round to look at them.

Garras placed the kit on the seat beside her then returned to his seat beside Kaid.

“I said it can wait, Vanna,” said Kusac, irritated by her insistence, trying to push her hands away as she reached for the seal on the front of his jacket.

“You’re the one delaying us, Kusac,” she said, looking him straight in the eye. “Once your jacket’s off, we can sit down. You can’t afford the blood loss, you know that. What weakens you, weakens Carrie.”

With a muttered oath he undid his jacket, trying to ease himself out of it.

“You’re an ungrateful, bullying jegget, Vanna,” he said, submitting ungraciously to her help. “We’ve come all the way out here to rescue you, and what do you do? Start ordering us around! I wonder how you put up with her, Garras!” He sat down on the seat, sliding over to leave room for her.

Garras glanced over his shoulder at him but diplomatically said nothing.

As she laid his jacket on one of the vacant seats, Vanna looked toward where Kaid and Garras sat. “I am grateful, Kaid,” she said quietly before picking up her kit and rejoining Kusac. “What happened to make your shoulder start bleeding again?” she asked as she cut the soiled dressing free.

“My fault, Physician,” said Kaid as the craft rose above the tops of Stronghold’s towers. “When I tried to stop him accompanying us, I grabbed him by his injured arm.” He banked away from the early morning sun, heading back to Valsgarth.

“Well you didn’t succeed, did you?” she grumbled, deftly wiping the blood from Kusac’s shoulder wound with a sterile pad before spraying on a coagulant. Taking out a fresh dressing, she bound it up again.

Kusac leaned back in the seat, closing his eyes. His shoulder ached and Vanna’s attentions had made it worse.

He’d hoped that once Carrie’s Challenge was over that they’d be left alone to have some peace, instead of which, they were now at the heart of political maneuvering between their guild and the Brotherhood. Something unresolved was niggling him, then he remembered what it was.

“Why did they want you at Stronghold, Vanna?” he asked as he felt the slight sting of the hypo gun against his arm.

“Physician,” said Dzaka from behind them. “I think it would be wiser to say as little as possible for the present.”

“Don’t start trying to order me around, Dzaka,” said Vanna coldly as she finished packing up the small medikit. “I haven’t forgiven you for what you did. Had you told me why Lijou and Ghezu needed to speak to me, I’d have agreed to go. Your methods were totally unprincipled, and unnecessary.”

“I’ve a bone to pick with you too,” growled Rulla, reaching out to pull Dzaka back from Vanna.

“What did they want?” asked Garras, turning round to look at her over the top of his seat.

“They’ve found a complete Valtegan skeleton in one of the

ancient cities,” she said.

“What?” Kusac sat up again, his tiredness pushed aside in the enormity of what she’d said.

Stunned, the others looked at each other.

“How the hell did it get there?” asked Garras. “You knew about this, Dzaka, and didn’t tell us? The Valtegans killed your wife and child down on Szurtha and you say nothing of this? Just what’s going on in that head of yours?”

“Dzaka knew nothing about the remains until we got there,” said Vanna. “That much was obvious when Lijou uncovered them to show me. They’ve found bones before but this was the first time they’d been able to remove a whole skeleton before Esken’s Guild priests destroyed the site,” she said.

Kusac was stunned. He didn’t know which news rocked him more — that Master Esken had been destroying alien remains in the ruined cities, or that centuries ago there had been Valtegans on Shola.

“The bones aren’t modern,” she continued. “Lijou has had them dated tentatively back to the days of the Cataclysm.”

“Did you know about this, Kaid?” asked Kusac. “Is this part of the reason why they sent you out to the Khalossa?”

“This is news to me, Liege,” said Kaid. “I’ve never picked up even so much as a whisper concerning this.”

“Did any of you know about it?” demanded Garras, looking at Rulla and T’Chebbi who sat at the back on either side of Dzaka. They shook their heads. “Dzaka? What did you know about this?”

“Nothing. I didn’t even know the Brotherhood had been visiting ruins,” he said.

“What did they tell you?” Kusac asked Vanna.

“They wanted me to identify the bones. All they knew was they were alien not Sholan. They had no idea they were Valtegan.”

“I know the miners recover the refined metals from the ruins,” said Kusac. “I also know that our Guild sends a priest to bless the sites and protect the miners from danger, but I had no idea they were finding remains there. I thought it was only rubble and metal. I think the Guild’s activities at ruins need to be investigated thoroughly to see what else is being destroyed.”

“Liege, there are several important matters for us to discuss,” said Kaid, turning his head towards them so his voice carried. “We’re all tired. May I suggest that we get some sleep when we get back to Valsgarth and hold a full debriefing later in the day?”

Kusac nodded. “We’ll meet in the second floor lounge at twelfth hour.”

Kaid reached out and held Dzaka back as the others left the aircar. “You and I have some talking to do,” he said grimly.

Dzaka nodded and waited for him to complete the vehicle’s power-down then preceded him out into the garage area.

Kaid pointed to the exit for the garden. “That way.”

Silently they walked across the greenswathe until they were out of sight of the house, then Kaid rounded on the younger male, grasping him by the throat and pinning him to the nearest tree.

“You took one of the people I’m sworn to protect into the gravest danger. You put my Liege’s life and that of his Leska at risk when he insisted on accompanying us.” Kaid’s voice was low with anger, his ears as stiff and vertical as the fur surrounding his neck and head. “You owe me an explanation.”

Half choking though he was, Dzaka didn’t dare move. He could tell by the coldness in Kaid’s eyes that if he made one false move, it would be his last.

Kaid could feel the hunter-sight beginning to set in as his vision narrowed till all he could see clearly was Dzaka.

“Can I help?” he heard Garras ask quietly.

Kaid ignored him. “I’m waiting,” he said, tightening his grip till his claws just pierced Dzaka’s flesh.

“Why should I justify my actions when you aren’t prepared to trust me?” wheezed Dzaka.

“Because if you don’t, you won’t live to regret it,” said Kaid softly.

“Answer him!” said Garras, coming forward to stand beside his friend.

Kaid watched Dzaka’s eyes flick to Garras then back to him. For the first time he saw stirrings of fear in them. Good. It was time Dzaka realized he couldn’t presume upon their past relationship — his actions had taken him beyond that. He tightened his grip fractionally.

Dzaka’s hands made an involuntary movement as if to reach up to pull Kaid’s hand away, then he froze.

Kaid could feel the younger male’s blood pounding under his hand, then the sharp smell of his fear.

“I . . .” Dzaka began to cough.

Kaid relaxed his grip slightly, letting him catch his breath.

“Was ordered to get Carrie or Vanna, preferably Vanna, to Stronghold,” Dzaka said. “Knew she’d be safe.” He broke off, unable to prevent himself from coughing again.

Kaid felt Garras’ hand touch the middle of his back in warning. It took all his self control not to turn round and lash out at him, so close was he to the edge of his hunter/kill state.

“They only wanted to talk, persuade her to join the Brotherhood. Knew they couldn’t afford to kill her. Wouldn’t have taken her otherwise.”

“He’s telling the truth,” said Garras.

“Keep out of this,” snapped Kaid. “It’s my business.”

“Mine too. He took my mate, Kaid,” said Garras, his voice equally angry.

Kaid watched Dzaka’s eyes begin to glaze as he passed beyond fear into sheer terror.

“First time you’ve been on the receiving end, isn’t it, Dzaka?” Kaid said, his voice as quiet and cold as the earth in winter’s deep. “How d’you like it? You really think you can second-guess me? Play me at my own game? Ghezu wants you to think that. Oh, you’re good, no two ways about it, but not that good.”

Kaid’s mouth opened in a grin that never touched his eyes. “Ghezu forgot to tell you one thing, Dzaka. He and I have played this game before and each time it’s cost him dear in lost Brothers. You want to be another statistic in his feud with me? Because if you step on my tail again, I will kill you!”

Dzaka’s eyes rolled back till only the whites showed. “Ask Vanna! I meant her no harm! Told her she’d be safe, that I wasn’t kidnaping her!”

Kaid took a deep breath, forcing back the darkness at the edges of his vision, forcing his fur to lie flat. As he released Dzaka, his free hand came up in a powerful open-handed blow to the other’s head, sending him spinning across the grass to land in an ignominious heap at the foot of a nearby tree.

He began to walk over to where Dzaka lay but Garras was there first, pulling the younger male to his feet and delivering an equal blow to the other side of his head.

“You go near Vanna again, Dzaka, and you’d better hope Kaid gets to you before I do,” snarled Garras, hauling him upright by the scruff of his neck before letting him go. “You understand me?”

Staggering, Dzaka held onto the tree trunk, nodding as he wiped the blood off his face onto his shirt sleeve. As Kaid came over, he looked up at him, fear written in every line of his body.

“You wanted to choose, Dzaka,” Kaid growled, coming to a stop. “So choose now. If you’re with us, it’s all the way, no turning back. If you aren’t, then get the hell out of my sight and off the estate.”

Dzaka wiped his face again, trying to stop shaking as he did so. “You’d trust me to stay?” he asked.

“You’re alive, aren’t you? If you stay, then you earn my trust from here on in,” said Kaid. “You could have come to me, told me what you planned to do, but you didn’t. I told you, trust works both ways.”

Dzaka forced his ears upright and took a shuddering breath. “I’ll stay,” he said, looking Kaid straight in the eyes with an effort.

Kaid nodded. “We’ll see you at eleventh hour. You’ll be given your assignment then.” He turned abruptly away from him and began walking back to the house.

Garras caught up with him. “Can we trust him?”

“He’ll be watched. One more slip and he’s dead, and now he knows it.”

“I thought you were going to kill him back there, that’s why I followed you,” said Garras, matching his pace to Kaid’s.

“I came close. I needed his explanation first. Vanna wasn’t harmed and she wasn’t out after his blood for taking her to Stronghold. Had it been different . . .”

“Damn Ghezu!” swore Garras. “If it weren’t for him, Dzaka wouldn’t be involved with us! Why the hell has he got to keep playing his mind games with the two of you? What’s he still got against you?”

“Don’t worry, Ghezu’s tally is adding up. There’ll be a reckoning between us before this is over,” said Kaid as they re-entered the garage on their way to the house.

Kaid knew what Dzaka faced: over thirty years of training and indoctrination from the Brotherhood. Talk was easy, it cost nothing. But if Dzaka really wanted to leave and join them, then he’d break free of that conditioning. He’d been trained to question, to rely on his own judgment — especially because he was a special operative like himself and Garras. They’d done it: Dzaka could. And if Dzaka succeeded, then he’d never need to doubt him again.

A chill wind swept across the space port, bringing with it the aroma of cooking from the stalls in the spacers’ shanty town. Geran stirred, lifting his head clear of the straw till he could see. Around their pen, the night was coming alive. Lights and flickering torches illuminated the darkness, lighting up the traders’ row so that visiting spacers could see the goods offered for sale.

Nearby, the door to a local tavern was flung open, sending a gust of ale-sodden warm air straight into his face. A burst of sound, the raucous voices calling out in languages he couldn’t understand, then it was cut off as the door swung closed again. Nearby he could hear the sound of a ship taking off from the space port, going home with its cargo, while they were left marooned on an alien world. With a low moan of distress, he laid his head back down on the foul straw.

The wooden bars of the pen began to vibrate as the keeper, yelling loudly, hammered at them with his club.

Around him, Geran heard the others begin to stir.

“What is it?” mumbled Tesha, her voice thick with sleep.

“Can you tell what he wants, Tallis?” Geran asked as he pushed himself upright, blinking furiously to clear his eyes of the straw-dust that Tesha had raised.

“I’m not a high-grade telepath, Geran, I keep telling you!” Tallis’ voice was a low snarl of anger. “We’ve only been here a few hours. It takes months even for the grade ones to understand an alien mind!”

“Stow it, Tallis,” said Tesha, hauling herself out of the straw. “We know your limitations; you never stop reminding us of them.”

“Miroshi’s the expert,” muttered Tallis. “Not me.”

Geran turned and began feeling through the straw, trying to locate the last member of their group.

“I’m here,” she said, her voice hardly audible through the din the keeper was still making. Her hand closed round his as she began to sit up.

She looked frail, worse than she had aboard the ship. Geran helped her, remaining at her side, shielding her from the keeper.

“This seems to be their world, Miroshi,” he said, flicking an ear toward the keeper. “If you can read them, pick up their language, it would help us all.” He hated himself for having to ask her but he had no option.

“Tallis, give me your hand,” she sighed, leaning against Geran. “I need your energy if I’m going to try and read them.”

As Tallis shuffled over, Geran turned to look out through the cage bars at their tormentor.

It was the keeper, but this time there was someone else with him. A younger person, cleaner than the other — he could smell the perfume from here — with his hair hanging tidily to his shoulders. He wore less fur on his face than the other, and what he had was trimmed to match his mouth and jaw line. The clothing was better quality, richer and brighter in hue. Everything about this one spoke of a male of importance and position on this world.

He could feel Miroshi beginning to work now. Not a telepath himself, he had enough sensitivity to give him an inkling of the world Miroshi and her kind lived in. He felt her pull on his energy too, then suddenly his mind was flooded with information and it was done. All three of them felt drained and weaker, but now they understood these strange, partly furred aliens.

“Hey, what about me?” muttered Tesha, keeping a wary eye on the two people outside their cage.

“Tallis, you can do that much,” whispered Miroshi, closing her eyes.

The unintelligible shouts from the keeper began to slowly resolve themselves into words as Geran struggled to understand what was being said.

“Not U’Churians?” the younger one was saying.

“No, Lord Bradogan. None of them are black, they’re all different in color. U’Churians come only in black, with longer fur than these ones,” the keeper was saying.

“They don’t look worth the price I paid for them,” said Bradogan disgustedly. “Half starved, beaten — and we don’t even know for sure they’re intelligent yet!”

“Oh, they’re intelligent,” laughed the keeper. “There’s two of each in there. The males knew enough of what was going on to try and protect their women! The two smaller ones are the women,” he said helpfully.

“Beasts will do that. They all look the same,” said Bradogan, stepping closer to the bars. “Women should look like women, not flat-chested like them.” He waved a derisory hand at the Sholans. “I suppose they’re worth it to keep those damned Valtegans away. Thank God they don’t come here often!”

“What do you want done with them, Lord Bradogan? They won’t sell in the state they’re in.”

“Move them out of this flea-ridden cage to the prison. Feed them, get an animal doctor to see to them, and for God’s sake, try and find out what they’re good for! I want my money’s worth out of those mangy carcasses!” he said, turning away.

“They’d make good pets,” offered the keeper. “They haven’t got much fight in them just now, but if they have, I can tame them, see that they’re docile. You could sell them as pets to those Northern Lords if they’re no good for anything else.”

“I’ll consider that when they look like a saleable commodity,” said Bradogan as he walked away.

“Pets!” growled Tesha. “They’d make pets out of us!”

“What’s a pet?” asked Jeran.

“A harmless beast with little intelligence. They keep them to look pretty and do clever tricks to amuse them,” said Miroshi tiredly.

“Talking to each other, are you?” said the keeper, leaning up against the bars. “Well, talk about this! You’d better find something that makes you worth your keep or Lord Bradogan will have your skins to decorate his floors! You play dumb with me and you’ll make it worse for yourselves.” He stopped and called his handlers over.

“We’re moving them to the port tower,” he said. “Get them collared and ready to go.”

Miroshi began to whimper. “Don’t let them touch me, Geran,” she said. “I can’t bear their touch! So ugly and violent! Please don’t let them touch me,” she begged.

“I’ll do what I can,” he promised, knowing that there was little he could do.

The cage door opened and the first of the males came in. In one hand he held one of the chain collars that had been used on them when they’d been brought here from the landing pad. Vicious things, that tightened round the throat if they didn’t keep the leash slack. In the other, he held an electric prod.

The male edged forward cautiously, reaching out with the prod and gesturing to Tallis.

“You,” he said. “I’ll have you first.”

Making a decision, Geran carefully put Miroshi aside and rose to his feet.

“We’ll come quietly,” he said, stumbling over the alien words. It would take some time before their speech was fluent.

“Geran!” exclaimed Tallis. “What are you doing?”

“Miroshi can’t take any more of this treatment,” he said. “They need to know not to touch her.”

“What the hell . . . Hey, Neban!” the surprised handler yelled, not taking his eyes off them. “These damned cats can speak our language!”

The keeper swung back to stare at them. “Bring him out first,” he said, pointing to Geran.

Holding his hands up at chest level, palms facing outward to show he meant no harm, Geran moved carefully toward the male with the prod.

“D’you want him collared?”

“Too right,” said Neban. “They’re even more dangerous now we know they’re not animals.”

Geran ducked his head down, folding his ears flat so the chain could be slipped over his head. As it settled round his neck over the sores caused by the Valtegan collars, he shuddered. It was cold and heavy. The male backed out of the cage before tightening his grip on the leash and pulling Geran out.

The collar tightened, choking him, making him cough. As he stumbled forward, he put his hands up to the noose, trying to loosen it so he could breathe.

“Leave it,” the handler snapped, about to touch him with the prod.

Neban slapped his arm away. “No need,” he said. “Not unless he gets violent. So you’re the leader, are you?” he said to Geran. “I’m glad you decided to cooperate. You see, the more you cooperate, the better price I get for you, and the better price you fetch, the better owner you have. Understand?”

Still holding onto the noose, Geran nodded. “We’ve got skills,” he said. We’re a space-going people ourselves. You could ransom us. Our people will pay to get us back.”

“That’s not up to me,” said Neban. “My job’s to get you trained and fit to sell, that’s all. You cooperate with me, and you’ll get well treated. You don’t, and . . . Well, I reckon I don’t need to tell you since you’ve experienced Valtegan hospitality.” He grinned, mouth splitting sideways as he showed his teeth.

Geran stepped back in shock. Immediately the noose tightened again, choking him until he loosened it.

“Right, get the others out,” Neban said, turning back to the cage. “Unless you want to tell them to walk out?”

Holding onto the collar’s loop, Geran turned to his friends. “If you don’t come out yourselves, they’ll use the prods,” he said. “Tallis, help Mirosi.”

Tesha was next out, stumbling as she stepped out onto the hard concrete pavement. A chain noose was immediately slipped over her head and she was dragged clear of the exit. Clinging to Tallis, Miroshi staggered out, holding onto the cage doorway for support.

“What’s wrong with her?” demanded Neban, reaching out to pull her away from Tallis.

“Don’t touch her!” exclaimed Tallis, trying to fend him off. Two prods hit him simultaneously and he collapsed to the ground mewling and writhing in agony.

“Please, leave her,” said Geran, forcing himself to remain still. “She’s a telepath. When anyone touches her, she knows their thoughts. The Valtegans hurt her badly — she can’t stand being touched again.”

“Mind readers?” exclaimed Neban, letting his hand drop. “How many of you are mind readers?” he demanded.

“Only two,” answered Geran. “Tallis is the other.” He pointed to where Tallis lay on the ground, curled in a fetal position, moaning.

Neban grunted. “She ill?”

“No, just weakened by their mental brutality. All she needs is food and time for her mind to heal. Let me carry her,” Geran said. “She can tolerate my touch.”

“What about him?” Neban pointed at Tallis.

“They weren’t so hard on him. He’s stronger than Miroshi.”

“You,” said Neban, pointing to Tesha, “You help him. Put the collar on him.”

Tesha took the collar from the handler, and bending down, slipped it round Tallis’ neck then helped him to his feet.

The stun charge was beginning to wear off now, and though still in pain, Tallis was able to stand.

Neban turned back to Geran. “You can see to the other woman,” he said, handing him the last collar.

Geran looked at his handler, making sure the leash was slack before he stepped over to Miroshi.

“They’ll let me carry you,” he said quietly as he slipped the loop over her head. “If they see how weak you are, it might ensure us better treatment.”

She nodded, shivering as he had when the chain fell round her throat. Putting her hand up to touch it, she looked up at him. “This is it, isn’t it, Geran? We’ve no chance of being rescued, have we? We’re going to die on this Gods forsaken world, aren’t we?” Tears began to fill her eyes.

Geran bent to pick her up. She hardly weighed anything, he realized with a shock. “Don’t give up hope, Miroshi,” he whispered. “They’ll not give up on us, believe me.”

“Have you looked at the sky?” she whispered, her mouth close to his ear. “I don’t recognize the stars, Geran! If we don’t know where we are, how can they?”

He had no answer to give her as he turned round to face Neban.

Fortune’s Wheel Excerpt by on


Adjutant Myak pressed the chime on the outside of Commander Raguul’s private quarters and waited. He could have used the comm, but both he and the Commander preferred the personal touch.As the door slid open, he stifled a yawn, extending his claws to scratch vigorously behind his left ear. He’d get no more sleep that night either. The starship Khalossa was already on Yellow 2 alert.

Commander Raguul lay propped up on one elbow, regarding him balefully. The set of his ears showed his irritation at being disturbed in the middle of his night.

“Yes, Myak?”

“The duty crew thought you’d like to know we’ve just received a transmission from the Sirroki, sir.”

“The Sirroki?” Raguul frowned, ears flicking briefly. “She’s the one that missed the rendezvous in the sixth quadrant, isn’t she?”

“That’s right, sir. You just posted her as officially missing.”

“You didn’t wake me just for that, surely. What was it this time? Not more freak storms?”

“Not this time, sir. They’ve found the Others.” Myak could hardly keep his tail from swaying with pleasure.

Raguul sat up. “Found them?”

“Yes, sir. The Sirroki was shot down by them on a planet designated as KX 1311. Our people are in hiding with a second group of aliens and request that we go to their aid.”

“Natives, eh?”

“Not natives, sir, colonists, a new species. Sub-Commander Kolem thought you might want to hear the original transmission yourself.”

Raguul was already out of bed and dressing. “Tell me about the Others,” he ordered as he pressed the seals on his jacket.

“They’ve a substantial base on the planet, plus two domed cities and garrison posts at each of the four colony towns. They’re capable of putting up a formidable resistance.”

“Has–whatzisname–transmitted the locations of these occupied zones?” demanded the Commander fumbling with his belt.

Myak moved forward to help him. “Captain Garras, sir. Communications is still decoding the message, but we believe so.”

“These colonists, what’re they like?”

“They’re upright and bilateral like us, and there’s a telepath among them,” said Myak, stepping back as he finished with the Commander’s belt.

Raguul’s tail began to flick as his ears and head swiveled round to look at Myak. “Telepaths, you say.”

“Yes sir. It seems that our telepath has formed a link to one of the female colonists.”

“Has he now?” Raguul took the brush Myak was holding out toward him and flattening his ears out of the way, ran it cursorily across the top of his head. He handed it back to his adjutant.

“Apparently, sir,” said Myak, returning the brush to the night table.

“Any more tactical details such as the numbers of the Others on the planet, their firepower, capabilities of their craft?”

“There could be, sir. As I said, they’re still decoding the message,” replied Myak, following the Commander out.

“Has a course been set in for KX 1311?”

“They’re waiting for your orders, sir.”

“Tell the bridge to have a chart of sector 6 set up on the main screen.”

When Raguul reached the bridge, it was humming with suppressed excitement. Sub-Commander Kolem rose from his seat, offering it to the Commander. With a nod of thanks, Raguul sat down.

“Have you finished decoding the message?” he asked.

“Just finished sir,” said Communications. “Putting it on audio now.”

Raguul and his bridge crew sat and listened to the voice of Mito Rralgu, the communications officer from the scouter Sirroki. Though terse, the message held all the information they had hoped it would.

Getting to his feet again, Raguul turned to Sub-Commander Kolem. “I want yourself, Tactics, Weapons and Sub-Commander Chaazu in my office today at the fourth hour. See that the chart of sector 6 is set up on the holo-table. Keep the ship on Yellow 2 alert and ensure Chaazu gets the message. With a week of transit time ahead of us, I want those ground troops of his ready before we reach KX 1311.”

“Yes sir.”

“In the meantime, relay that message to my comm. Sholan High Command will wandt to hear it. The bridge is yours.”

“Aye, sir.”

Raguul was finishing his meal in the bridge mess when he was paged through the comm system.

“Approaching KX 1311 now, sir,” said Sub-Commander Kolem’s voice.

With a growl of annoyance, he gulped down his mug of c’shar and got to his feet. Changing his mind, he turned and neatly speared the remaining piece of meat with a clawtip. These disturbed meals weren’t doing his gut-ache any good. Up until a week ago this had been a boring, routine mission. He had a feeling it wasn’t going to last. Mop-up operations had a way of getting very messy.

Kolem rose and stood aside for the Commander.

Raguul waved him back. “Sit, sit. I’ll stand for now,” he said, looking at the view screen displaying the KX 1311 system. “I presume there’s no sign yet of that back-up we were promised?”

“Not yet, sir.”

A sudden burst of sound filled the bridge, then stopped.

“Our long-range scanners have activated a coded message from the life pod, sir,” said the comm officer.

“Get onto it immediately,” said Raguul.

“I’m picking up an incoming signal in sector five, sir,” said Navigation. “It’s an Alliance fleet identity. They should be on screen any moment now.”

A portion of the upper right-hand quadrant of the screen appeared to waver, then steady as a group of ships materialized out of jump.

“Identities coming in now, sir. Battleship Cheku, accompanied by the cruisers T’chelu, Rryabi, Vriji, and the Vek’ihk, a Sumaan craft.”

“Signal from the Cheku, sir,” said the secondary communications officer. “Checku’s comm officer says Commander Vroozoi wished to speak to you in private. He adds that the tanker and escort ships are following.”

“Patch it through to my briefing room,” said Raguul, turning away from the screen.

“Force Commander,” said Raguul, a flick of his ears acknowledging the other’s superior rank. “What can I do for you?”

“Raguul. I see you struck it lucky this time,” said Vroozoi. “High Command says you’ve found a den of these Others.”

“Yes, Commander. As you know, our report says there are only a few thousand of them on the planet. Though I doubt we’ll need all your firepower, it’s still comforting to have it. We aren’t equipped for an extended military campaign.”

“Each to his own, eh, Raguul?” Vroozoi dropped his mouth in a lazy smile. “That’s why we’re here.” His tone changed and became sharper, more businesslike. “I want you to join me an hour from now for a tactical briefing. You’ll get a copy of your new orders then assault craft will remain on the Khalossa, but they and their crew will form an integrated part of my task force. Once the planet has been secured, you’ll be in charge of the diplomatic side. I’ll see you within the hour,” he said, reaching forward to close the channel.

Raguul frowned at the comm. He’d come across Vroozoi before. An ambitious male, that one, determined to climb as high as he could within the forces. Rumor had it that there were more than a few people who had had the misfortune to be between him and what he wanted. Their shattered careers littered his past like fallen leaves. Raguul didn’t intend to become one of them

He sighed and, leaning forward, paged Myak requesting him to join him. Switching off the comm, he got to his feet and headed back to his bridge.

Sub-Lieutenant Draz looked up from the scanner display as the Commander reentered the bridge. “Scans show no signals going in or out. I’d hazard a guess that our people have done some heavy damage to their coastal base. The Others appear to be blind and dreaf.”

“Let’s hope you’re right. The last thing we want is a prolonged campaign. I’ll take that seat now, Kolem,” he said. “Order my shuttle made ready. I’m to join Vroozoi on the Cheku within the hour.”

“Yes, sir,” said Kolem, hurriedly standing up and moving to one side.

“Message decoded, sir. It’s for our resident Leskas,” said the communications officer.

“What?” Raguul swung round to face him.

“It’s from the Sirroki’s telepath, Kusac Alda, to our Leska pair.”

“You said that,” said Raguul testily. “What’s it say?”

“It’s security coded, sir,” the comm officer said apologetically.

“Then pass it on, and tell them I expect an explanation,” said Raguul, pressing his hand to his stomach as a stab of pain hit him. He grimaced as he kneaded his gut to relieve the pressure. He just knew this mission was going to be messy. Some people had weather-wise joints. He had a trouble-predicting gut.

“Message incoming from Shola, sir,” called out the secondary comm officer.

Raguul stifled a groan. This was all he needed. “I’ll take it on the main screen. Patch it through.”

The image of Chief Commander Chuz of the Sholan High Command replaced the view of KX 1311.

“Commander Raguul,” he said, ears flicking in acknowledgement. “You’ve located the Others.”

“Yes, Chief Commander Chuz. We’ve located some of them at least. Seems they were using this planet as a hospital and R&R base. They call themselves Valtegans. I’ll be able to tell you more when we’re in contact with out people on the surface.”

“I want information from these Valtegans as soon as possible, Raguul; so does Alien Relations. I’ve put you in charge of interrogating all prisoners. I want to know as a matter of urgency why they destroyed our colony worlds. A1Rel also wants information collected on this new species of natives. Get your First Contact people onto that. Send us the results of the Sirroki’s debriefing as soon as you have it; at least it’ll give us a starting point.” He stopped talking to glance briefly to one side.

“I’ve been asked to remind you to convey the message from Konis Aldatan to Kusac Alda as soon as possible. Until we received your report regarding the Sirroki and the Others, Konis had no idea where his son was. Kusac disappeared a year ago and hasn’t been in touch since.”

“I’ll pass the message on Chief Commander.”

“Good. Keep me informed of your progress.” The screen went blank.

A glass of white liquid appeared in front of Raguul. He took it gratefully from Myak. “Thank you,” he said, downing the content and handing the empty glass back to his adjutant. “Couldn’t you make it taste more palatable?” he asked.

“I’m afraid not, sir. I’d have to see dispensary about that.”

“Then do it, please. I’ve a feeling I’m going to be taking a lot of this vile brew.”

“Rhian and Askad, our resident Leka pair, are waiting, sir,” said Myak.

“send them in.”

The two telepaths came onto the bridge. One look at the set of their ears and Raguul knew their news was not good.

“Commander, we’re here to report on the message we received from the life pod. It was from Kusac Alda, telepath on the Sirroki,” said Rhian, the female.

Raguul nodded and waited.

Rhian locked at Askad.

“Well?” prompted Raguul. “One of you had better tell me!”

“Kusac’s requested our intercession on behalf of his Leska,” said Askad.

Raguul frowned at them, his ears flicking briefly. “His Leska, you say. As far as I’m aware, he doesn’t have a Leska. Myak, what do you know about this?’

“We have him listed as a grade five telepath, Commander. At that basic a level of talent they don’t for Leska Links,” replied his adjutant.

“I’m afraid he has on now, Commander,” said Askad.

“His Leska isn’t a Sholan, she’s one of the people who lived on the planet. A Terran.”

Raguul closed his eyes. “His Leska is an alien?”

“Yes, sir. He’s asked that we meet him on Keiss and …” began Rhian.


“What they call their world, sir. He wants us to meet him on Keiss and take charge of his Leska. He’s afraid of her being seen as a specimen for the Medics to study. Apparently she’s a healer.”

Raguul took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “What in Vartra’s name is he trying to do?” The question was rhetorical. “We meet another telepathic species for the first time in five hundred years and he goes and forms a Leska Link to one of them without even a by your leave! They haven’t even been investigated yet! Surely even the densest cub would be aware of the diplomatic implications. I’ll have his hide on my wall for this!” he promised grimly.

“Commander, you can’t create a Leska LInk,” said Rhian.

“It’s a gift from the Gods. It just happens to you, you have no power over it.”

“He’s not responsible for forming the link, Commander,” said Askad.

Raguul let loose a string of invectives. “Then you’d better get permission from Mentor Mnya to go down to this… Keiss… when it’s been secured!”


“See to it now. Dismissed!”

When they’d left, he turned to Myak. “This situation has all the makings of a powder keg ready to blow up under us. What the hell is Kusac playing at? With his background he should know better!”

“Oh, it gets better, sir,” said Myak quietly. “While Rhian and Askad were with you, contact was established with Captain Garras of the Sirroki. He’s requested an armed escort for his first officer who is under arrest for mutiny. He Challenged Kusac Alda against orders. This same male is making allegations against Kusac of mentally controlling this Terran female and forcing her to become his Leska for sxual resons. I know, sir,” he said, seeing his Commander’s eye ridges go up. “That means Kusac and his Leska will have to face a Telepath Guild hearing.”

“As you said, it gets better by the minute, ” said Raguul testily. “The Gods know what Vroozoi will make of all this! So Kusac’s a runaway, is he? Well, at least he’s shown more spirit than most telepaths! His father’s going to create some grief for us when he learns his son’s Leska is an alien. Perhaps we’ll all be lucky and it won’t be a permanent link. She isn’t a Sholan, after all.”

“If he claims she’s his Leska, I’d believe it, sir,” said Myak. “Telepaths don’t make mistakes like that, and I’ll warrant he’s no fifth grade either. May I also suggest it might be politic not to mention anything about his Leska to his father for the moment? We need to debrief the Sirroki crew, establish a liaison with these new aliens, and assess them and their telepaths before we can think about dealing with clan matters.”

“I think that’s a very sound suggestion, Myak,” said the Commander. “Deal with matters on a priority basis. We are on a war alert, after all. I take it I can leave the matter of his father in your capable hands?”

Myak closed his eyes and forced his tail to stay still “Of course, sir,” he said faintly.

“Excuse me, Commander,” Draz interrupted. “Your shuttle is ready,sir.”

Raguul got to his feet. “You’re coming with me, Myak. If Vroozoi has heard this transmission, I’ll need all your abilities to talk my way out of him insisting on getting involved in this.”

“It would be extremely unfortunate if Force Commander Vroozoi were to become involved,” said Myak, following him from the bridge into the lift. “However, as you say, sir, this matter is potentially explosive. Knowing the Force Commander’s reputation, I think he’ll be more than glad to leave it to you.”

“Let’s hope you’re right. Main landing bay,” Raguul ordered as the elevator doors closed.

Three days had passed since they’d rendezvoused with the Cheku. They had been days during which Raguul would have preferred to have denned with a spine-covered wild hog. Luckily, true to Myak’s prediction, the one problem they had avoided was the one concerning Kusac and his alien Leska.

Raguul entered the bridge, taking over from Sub-Commander Zyan. The main wall screen showed the progress of their assault on Keiss.

“Are the ground troops ready?”

“Yes, sir. The drop vehicles launch in one minute, followed by the assault cruisers and destroyers,” replied Sub-Commander Chen at Tactics. “The strikers will launch last.”

“Put the Cheku’s bridge comm on audio.”

“Yes, sir. Switching to audio now,” siad Communications.

“I presume we have the full tactical and weapons crew on the bridge?”

“Ready and waiting, sir,” said Khodi from Weapons.

The bridge crew sat watching the main screen as the heavy troop carriers were launched. Surrounded by their attendant swarm of assault craft, they headed inexorably toward the plant’s surface. Onboard the Khalossa, Raguul felt theirs was the more difficult task: that of waiting for the outcome of the battle below. Both they and the Cheku were to remain within planetary range of Keiss, monitoring the system in case of incoming alien craft. Supporting them were the thirteen escort destroyers.

“Trying to locate the Sirroki’s crew now, sir,” said the comm.


“I think you’d better come and see this for yourselves,” called Davies from his concealed position at the mouth of the cave.

Garras, sitting near the entrance, pricked his ears, turning to face the circle of daylight.

Mito leapt to her feet and ran outside. “They’ve come!” she yelled, her voice all but drowned out by the now audible sound of high level airborne vehicles. There was a general rush to the cave mouth as everyone surged into the open to stare up at the approaching craft. Even as they watched, a group of them banked towards the Valtegan base, the faint glow of energy weapons lancing down. Plumes of smoke began to rise, accompanied by the sounds of distant explosions.

“Alright!” yelled Davies, waving his rifle in the air as a salute to the avenging craft.

“My God, the sky’s almost black with them,” said Skinner, watching as more vehicles headed out toward Geshader and Tashkerra.

“They certainly know where they’re going,” said Nelson. He turned to Mito. “Just what did you put in that message?”

“The location of every strategic Valtegan unit,” she said smugly. “It seems they got the message correctly.”

“Get under cover,” ordered Skinner. “We’re far from safe yet, this is only the beginning.” He pointed to the south where some Valtegan craft had just taken to the air. “If they see us, we’ve nowhere to hide. Believe me, within hours this planet will be crawling with Valtegans trying to escape capture. Get moving!” he bellowed as everyone hesitated, torn between a desire to watch the forthcoming aerial battle and the need to remain hidden.

There was a mad scramble to get back under cover and to secure a good vantage point at the mouth of the cave. Garras took advantage of the confusion to have a quiet word with Skinner who glanced sharply at Guynor then nodded. Casually he went over to Anders and Hughes, drawing them aside. A few words with them and they returned to the group at the cave mouth, flanking Guynor on either side.

Having observed the interchange, Kusac limped over to where Carrie stood on tiptoe, trying vainly to see over the heads of Jo, Edwards, and Davies.

“I told you they would come,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“You were right,” she said, her tone somber. “Time doesn’t stop for anyone.”

Kusac tightened his grasp reassuringly. “You see your future up there in the skies, not Sholan war craft. I understand,” he said.

Come, it’s safer if we move away from them, he sent, nodding in the direction of Guynor. Anders and Hughes had just taken hold of the Sholan male, placing him under close arrest.

Now the Khalossa is here, Garras doesn’t trust Guynor’s parole. His hatred of us is so strong he may not wait for the results of my hearing or his court martial before deciding to take the law into his own hands.

Carrie turned away from the cave mouth, moving out from under his hand.

“I wish I had your confidence in the future,” she said, unwilling to look at him.

Acutely aware of her growing unease and withdrawal from him over the last few days, Kusac took her by the arm, urging her further into the cave with him. He led her past the group gathered round the Sholan transmitter, toward an empty table at the far side of the main cave, sensing as he did so her reluctance to be alone with him.

Carrie, I think it’s time we talked.

For a moment he felt her resist then, as he eased himself down with his back to the wall, she slipped onto the bench facing him. Inwardly he sighed, trying to block his annoyance over yet another of her unsubtle hints that she was a person in her own right, apart from him.

“I prefer to vocalize,” she said in Sholan.

Kusac shrugged, leaning his elbows on the table. “It makes no difference to me,” he said mildly. “I said it was time to talk, and it is. I know you can shield some things from our Leska bond, and should I choose to pry, I could probably find out what.” He held up his hand to forestall her as he felt the indignation and denial that rose to her lips.

“I choose instead to ask you,” he continued. “So tell me why this is the first time in three days that we’ve been alone.”

Carrie examined her hands. “I’m not avoiding you, Kusac,” she said at length.

“True,” he agreed amicably. “You’re just avoiding being alone with me.”

“I’m not really. I only want to spend what time I have left on Keiss with my own people. It came as a shock to realize how soon I would be leaving everything I know behind, and how much there was to leave.”

“You’ve said these words before, Carrie. While I recognize their truth, I’m listening for the words you have not spoken.”

Carrie looked up with a faint smile. “I forgot that half truths aren’t possible between us.”

The smile faded and she sighed, reaching for his hand. She held it between both of hers, stroking the dark fur before turning it over to look at his palm. It was much like hers, flesh colored, the fingers long and narrow. The sharp tipped claws were retracted now.

“You know what I feel about you, Kusac,” she said, as he turned his hand to clasp one of hers. “Our Link makes it impossible for me to hide it, and I know what you feel for me. Your conviction that our Leska bond must be like the Sholan one–linked as life mates, body and mind –frightens me.”

His hand tightened on hers, claws automatically coming out, to be retracted almost as soon as they touched her.

“Do you wish the Link hadn’t been forged?” he asked, trying to keep his voice and thoughts neutral.

“No,” she replied quickly, frowning. “I don’t wish it undone, but I wish I had had a choice! It seems that all my life other people or circumstances have dictated what I do. Just for once I’d like to have some say in the matter.”

“What, then, do you wish to do?” he asked, cursing inwardly as his tail gave an involuntary flick against her legs. “Do you wish to remain on Keiss?”

“I don’t want to stay here,” she said. “No, I intend to leave with you. Apart from anything else, we have to attend your guild hearing and Guynor’s court-martial. I wouldn’t let you go through those alone no matter what I felt for you.”

“Thank you,” he said drily.

“So much has happened since we left my home,” she said, her eyes taking on a distant look. “Do you realize it was only about a month ago? Who could guess so much could happen in so short a time?”

She came back to the present, giving herself a little shake, a gesture that was almost Sholan.

“I just need some time to adjust to the changes in my life, to decide what I want to do.” She looked intently at him. “Could you do that? Would you let me have some time to myself?”

“If it means so much to you, then take the time that you need,” he said, carefully keeping his voice level.

“Thank you,” she said quietly. “I know what this costs you.” She released his hand and rose from the table, smiling before she left.

Left alone, Kusac clenched his hands into fists, his claws drawing blood from his palms. The pain stopped him thinking, stopped her picking up the worry that would otherwise be in his mind. Facts about telepathic links, Leska Links in particular, were what he needed. The Telepath Guild’s files on board the Khalossa held the information. Once there he could access them; then he would know for sure what at least a normal Sholan Leska Link entailed.

For now he needed a distraction, something to do to keep his mind occupied. If only Vanna’s medikit carried some psychic suppressants, he could have escaped the constant awareness of Carrie that was rubbing his senses raw. Her decision to keep him at a distance mentally and physically was exacerbating his situation. Unfortunately, investigatory teams like theirs didn’t normally include telepaths so the drug wasn’t contained in the standard medikit.

He heard a cry of pleasure from the direction of the transmitter and looked up.

“We’re in contact with the Khalossa!” shouted Vanna, catching his eye.

Kusac grinned and, unclenching his hands, pushed himself to his feet and went over to join them.

“How’re things going?” he asked her.

“Fine. Six or seven Valtegan ships made it off planet, but were tracked by our craft. Two have been allowed through the cordon, the others were destroyed.”

“Why let two through?”

She shrugged. “I presume to warn the Valtegans that their R and R planet has been returned to its rightful owners.”

Kusac digested this for a moment. “Surely they’ll retaliate?”

“Garras thinks not,” said Mito. “If they used Keiss as a relaxation base, then it must be far enough from their war zone to be safe. Being at war, they won’t want to start another one with us, will they? It would split their resources.”

“I expect they’ll leave well alone now that they know there are two races capable of retaliating in this sector of space,” said Garras.

“Any other news?” Kusac asked him.

“They plan to airlift us out of here as soon as possible and take us to Seaport to rendezvous with the Terran leaders. They’re sending down our top negotiators to begin the treaty talks.”

“Seaport’s a good choice. Part of the original Terran craft is there with their computer records and transmitters. Any news about the Terran colony ship?”

“They’ve sent a message for two escort ships to meet it and bring it directly here,” said Vanna. “Keiss is shortly going to seem very crowded.”

Kusac nodded. “Life moves on,” he said.

Vanna frowned as she looked at him. “That’s a strange thing to say.”

“It just seems a very rapid solution for a problem that was almost insurmountable a few weeks ago.”

“You’re being too profound,” she said, showing her teeth in a wide Sholan grin.

“There’s two personal messages for you, Kusac,” said Mito, looking up at him, a strange expression on her face.

“Personal?” asked Kusac, looking startled.

“Yes. Rhian and Askad, Leska Telepaths on board the Khalossa, thank you for the message and say that all has been arranged and they will meet you at Seaport.”

“Ah,” said Kusac, glancing sideways at Garras, ears flicking with embarrassment but the Captain appeared engrossed in listening to the transmission.

“And your father says he is glad you are well. He says he awaits with interest the pleasure of meeting you and your Leska.”

Kusac took a deep breath. “Damn!” he swore.

All the eyes of the little group were now on him.

“Is there some problem?” asked Vanna quietly.

“Just more complications I could do without,” he said, sitting down beside her and stretching out his injured leg. “I’d hoped to tell him myself. I should have known better.”

“How, in a military emergency such as this, could he get a message through from Shola?” asked Mito.

“How did he know you’d found a Leska?” asked Vanna. “Did someone on the Khalossa inform him?”

“I don’t know,” said Kusac, shrugging. “Just leave it, please.”

“It seems there’s more to you than meets the eye,” said Garras, glancing appraisingly at him before returning his attention to the transmitter.

“He must know someone important to be able to use the military communications to send a personal message during a state of war,” Mito continued, unwilling to leave the matter alone.

“I said enough, Mito!” said Kusac, standing up. “Captain, I claim a telepath’s privilege of solitude. I need to leave the cave. Have I permission to go?” he asked curtly.

Garras glanced briefly at Vanna, obtaining an almost imperceptible movement of her ears in assent. The risk of him encountering Valtegans on the run was outweighed by his need for solitude.

“Granted. If you find game while you’re out, it would make a welcome change to our diet.”

Kusac nodded and, spinning round, left, barely aware of Carrie’s startled reaction to his outburst.

By late afternoon a Sholan craft arrived to ferry them to Seaport. They landed in the square in front of the Eureka. It was a huge metal edifice, only a fraction of its former height but still dominating every other building in Seaport. Skai and the other guerrillas headed off to the local inn, Skinner accompanying Carrie and the Sholans through the entrance.

Garras stopped briefly to talk to the Sholan guards inside, handing Guynor over to their custody. That done, Skinner led the way, passing by the elevators to the upper levels where the communications and records departments were housed, heading for the room that had been the Terran’s council hall before the advent of the Valtegans.

It still bore the scars of the occupation, but had been returned to the semblance of human use by the local townsfolk. A huge carved wooden table sat in the center of the room surrounded by chairs. At the far end of the table, a small group of Sholans and Terrans sat. They looked up as the new arrivals entered.

“Carrie! Richard!” called their father, getting to his feet and coming forward to meet them.

Richard threw Carrie a rueful glance.

“I didn’t think we could avoid him for long,” he said quietly.

“What possessed him to bring David too?” she said.

Kusac stepped closer to her. “David’s here?”

She looked up at him. “Yes, but don’t worry. I can handle him.”

Kusac flicked his ears in irritation. “I dislike him. The man is cruel and self opinionated.”

“Carrie,” her father said, hugging her when they reached him. “You shouldn’t have left like that. We were extremely worried about you. Thank God Richard found you.”

“I was fine, Dad. I had Kusac with me,” she said, returning the hug.

“Ah yes. Kusac.” Peter Hamilton regarded him critically.

Kusac bore her father’s appraisal patiently, knowing it was only the first of many obstacles that he and Carrie would have to face. Briefly his viewpoint altered and he saw himself through both his Leska’s and her father’s eyes. Tall, dark furred, and fairly powerfully built, the pointed ears added to his feline look. The face was humanoid yet still catlike with vertically slitted amber eyes set above high cheek bones. The nose and mouth, though bifurcated like a feline’s, appeared more humanoid.

A wave of dizziness hit him along with the realization that Carrie was making sure her father saw the person that he was rather than the animal he had impersonated during his stay at the Inn. Then his vision cleared and he sensed her father’s conclusion that his appearance, despite the heavy musculature that hinted at a strength beyond that of the Terrans, was pleasing rather than threatening.

Gods, cub, you need to learn some subtlety! he sent.

Time for that later, she replied.

Her father was nodding and holding out his hand. “It seems we owe you everything. Had it not been for you, we wouldn’t yet be free of the Valtegans. Been wounded again, I see,” he said, looking at the bandage around Kusac’s thigh.

Kusac took the hand, grasping it lightly and releasing himself before Peter Hamilton’s grasp triggered his claws.

“It’s almost healed,” he said. “I owe your family my life. It seemed a fair exchange.”

Peter Hamilton smiled and turned back to his children.

“Richard, I see you’ve managed to keep body and soul together.”

Richard grinned. “Just about,” he said.

Her father turned to allow David to join the group.

“I’ve brought someone with me who’s very anxious to see you, Carrie,” he said.

“Hello, Carrie,” said David. “You really shouldn’t have left so precipitously, you know. Not exactly a mature act, was it, to cause so much distress? Still, you’re back with us now.” He stepped forward to give her a perfunctory kiss on the cheek.

“Hello, David,” she said, sidestepping him to stand beside Kusac. “I see you haven’t changed. You shouldn’t have bothered to come, you know. We said our goodbyes the day I left Valleytown.”

David stopped abruptly, an angry look crossing his face.

“Carrie, that’s hardly any way to talk to someone who’s been as concerned over you as David has,” scolded her father.

“I don’t give damn what David thinks or feels, Father. I want nothing to do with him. He needn’t stay on my account.”

Let’s leave, Kusac, she sent.

Kusac put an arm around her waist, drawing her to one side. He inclined his head briefly to her father.

“You will excuse us, sir, but we have to see my commanding officer. I’m sure you understand that Clan matters have to come second to duty.”

He drew her towards where the Sholans were grouped together round a section of the table, aware of her father and David’s puzzled anger at their abrupt dismissal.

“Carrie, come back,” her father called. “You shouldn’t be here. These are important discussions, not some social event.”

She stopped, turning to face him again.

“I am here officially, with the Sholans. I have another mental link, this time with Kusac. It makes me part of his ship’s crew now.”

“Mental link?” said her father, confused.

“A link like I had with Elise. I told you I wasn’t returning home and I meant it,” she said, her voice and face unyielding. “When the ship leaves Keiss, I’m going too.”

“What nonsense is this, Carrie? Just because you looked after Kusac and helped him find the rest of his crew doesn’t mean his people want you on their ship. That’s work for the diplomats, not you. It’s time for you to return home to your family and friends.”

“I have no friends on Keiss, and you were prepared to barter me to David against my wishes for the sake of the family.”

“That’s different . . . ” he began.

“Yes, it is. This is what I choose to do.”

Kusac’s heart began to lighten. Maybe there was hope for them after all.

“Don’t talk utter rubbish, girl,” her father stormed. “You’ll do as you’re told!”

A voice from behind interrupted them, the heavily accented Sholan breaking the angry group apart.

Kusac released Carrie and turning sharply, saluted the officer behind him. There followed a brief interchange before Kusac turned back to them.

“Sub-Commander Zyan asks that this discussion be delayed until we join the others. There are many facts that need to be investigated before the matter can be fully resolved. He also asks that I act as interpreter until I have imprinted the knowledge of your language to a telepath from the Khalossa who will then remain with you as your permanent interpreter.”

“Telepath? Language imprint?” echoed Mr. Hamilton, looking thoroughly confused and exasperated. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. And what’s all this got to do with Carrie?”

“I’m sorry but I have to ask you to respect our security. This matter is not for public discussion,” said Kusac, throwing an evil openmouthed grin at David.

“As one of the leaders of the Terran community on Keiss, I am sure you are aware of the need to keep certain matters confidential. If you would rejoin our people at the table?” Kusac stepped back, indicating that Carrie’s father should return to his place.

David moved to follow him but before Kusac could bar his way, Richard reached out and grasped him by the arm.

“Sorry mate, but if I’m not included, then you certainly aren’t.”

David tried to shake free. “Anything that concerns Carrie concerns me,” he blustered.

Richard forcibly led David away as Kusac escorted Carrie after her father and the Sholan officer.

“I think my sister has already made her opinion of you clear,” said Richard, his voice drowning out David’s complaints. “No matter what deal you and Dad have hatched, if you go near her again, you’ll not only have Kusac to deal with but me as well.”

Once the group round the table was settled again, Kusac performed the various introductions, nodding briefly when he introduced Rhian and Askad, the Leska Telepaths.

Sub-Commander Zyan began to talk, and Kusac turned again to Carrie’s father.

“The Sub-Commander wishes to touch on the matter of your daughter, since he wants to get Clan matters dealt with first.”

“He realizes you do not have a recognized Telepath Guild amongst your people, so he asks that you bear with us and accept what we say until the matter can be proved to you.”

“Very well, but I still don’t see how it involves Carrie.”

Kusac relayed his answer to the Sub-Commander, waiting for his reply.

“Your daughter is not only a powerful telepath, but a healer,” said Zyan through Kusac. “Telepaths are in a minority amongst our people, but healers are even rarer. As well as that, she has developed a mental link with one of our personnel–myself,” he continued.

“Leska bondings happen occasionally amongst Sholans, but never before has there been one with a member of an Alien race. In fact, we have never come across another telepathic race until now. It is important, therefore, that we assess and study what gifts your daughter has, how it is possible that she should have a link with one of our people, and the benefits to both our species.”

“That’s impossible,” her father said flatly.

“I assure you it has happened, Mr. Hamilton,” murmured Kusac, still listening to the Sub-Commander.

“Your daughter will go aboard the Khalossa with our resident Leskas, Rhian and Askad,” Kusac indicated the two Sholans sitting to one side of him, “who will help the Tutors assess her abilities. Since the matter also involves a Sholan, I’m afraid we have to insist.”

Mr. Hamilton took a deep breath. “Insist is rather a strong word.”

“Had you the facilities and personnel capable of making this assessment, we would assist you on Keiss. Since you have not, then it must be done on the Khalossa,” said Zyan, through Kusac.

“How do I know my daughter will be . . . ”

“She’ll be safe,” interrupted Kusac, glancing at Zyan. “I would let no harm come to her, believe me.”

Skinner leaned forward.

“We haven’t any choice, Hamilton. They’re a reasonable lot, they won’t harm her; Kusac will see to that.”

Peter Hamilton looked sharply from Skinner to Kusac. “There’s something here I’m missing. What is it? What kind of link do you have with my daughter?”

“I’m linked to her like Elise was, Mr. Hamilton. If they harm her, believe me, I will feel it. No one will harm her. She is important to both of us, and to both our species. We place a very high value on yelepaths and healers.”

The Sub-Commander interrupted again. After a brief conversation, Kusac turned back to Skinner and Mr. Hamilton.

“It will be tomorrow morning before a shuttle returns to the Khalossa, and Carrie will be on board with the rest of the crew from the Sirroki. Once the preliminary talks are finished here, Sub-Commander Zyan will return to the ship, but that won’t be for several days yet. When he does, you are welcome to accompany him and see your daughter for yourself.”

Mr. Hamilton hesitated briefly. “I have no option, do I? I take it you’ll be returning with Carrie?” he asked Kusac.


“Then I’ll have to trust you to look after her for me.”

Kusac relayed the answer.

“Since your daughter is not involved in any of the other matters we have to discuss, Rhian will escort her to the Inn across the road where our people are being billeted. We can arrange for any personal items she might want to take with her to be collected from her home. An armed scouter and an escort can take them to Valleytown should she wish it.”

“I’ve nothing I want to take,” said Carrie, looking bleakly at her father as she rose to leave.

Kusac reached up to touch her hand comfortingly as she passed.

“I hardly recognize her,” her father said, watching her walk away with the Sholan female. “That’s not the girl I raised. What happened to her out in the forest?” he asked Skinner.

Skinner glanced briefly at Kusac. “She grew up, Peter,” he said. “They all do. They grow up and away from you, which is as it should be. She was never cut out to be a colonist, you know. You kept her too long as it was. Let her go now.”

“The Sub-Commander would like to turn to other issues now,” interrupted Kusac. “Have you been briefed on the matter of your ship, the Erasmus?”

Mr. Hamilton nodded, reluctantly turning away from Skinner.

“A message was sent to one of our vessels in that sector of space, and two ships have been dispatched to escort it to Keiss. It should be here within a week.”

“A week!” he exclaimed.

“Our technology is more advanced than yours,” said Kusac, with a deprecating gesture. “It is suggested that you do not contact the ship until it is in orbit around Keiss, then presumably you have a coded signal to waken the various personnel on board.”

Skinner nodded.

“We also need to contact your home planet so as to make parallel treaty negotiations with Earth as well. A deep space relay will be arranged for you to enable you to contact Earth using your own transmitter. Once you have appraised them of the situation here, we can arrange for one of our ships to call there and bring the necessary personnel to Keiss. Our flagship, the Khalossa, will be stationed in permanent orbit here to protect you until such time as between us we have organized a defensive force not only for this area of space, but also your home planet.”

And so it continued until late into the night.

The next morning, Kusac was dug out of his makeshift bed by Mito with the news that the incoming shuttle had landed and he was needed to imprint the telepath. That done, he went in search of Carrie and food. Linking into her, he found her across the road at the inn where they had met Skai.

It had been requisitioned for Sholan use, and was serving as their main canteen and accommodation area. Carrie was sitting with Vanna, Mito and Garras.

He joined them, ordering a meal when the innkeeper’s daughter came to the table.

“How did the talks go?” asked Vanna.

Kusac wrinkled his nose in disgust. “I don’t think I could work with the Diplomatic Guild,” he said. “All facts and dancing round the truth. Not the easiest or most interesting of work.”

“Well, it’s nothing to do with us any more. It’s back to the ship in a few hours, and the usual routine.”

Kusac shook his head. “We’re in permanent orbit here for some time.”

“Ah, protection duty and routine search flights,” said Vanna.

“To say nothing of flushing out the last of the Valtegans still loose on the planet,” agreed Mito.

“The troops will handle that,” said Garras. “Could be interesting. Hunting another intelligent species for the first time will provide an unusual challenge. I’ve found out that the Valtegans have been making suicide attacks on our troops and the few they’ve managed to pin down have killed themselves rather than be taken captive.”

“Why should they do that?” asked Carrie.

“We won’t know until we can ask one of them,” said Garras. “It could be conditioning or it could be a racial characteristic. Did they display any hive creature attributes? You’ve been exposed to them longer than we have.”

“They acted as independent beings rather than part of a group mind, but how do you begin to study an alien race anyway?”

“That’s the job of our first contact teams. Doubtless AlRel will send some personnel down from the Khalossa,” said Vanna.

“AlRel?” asked Carrie.

“Alien Relations.”

“To assess us or them?” asked Carrie.

“Both,” grinned Vanna. “You don’t think they’ll take our humble word for what we think of you, do you? Oh, they’ll debrief us and note our conclusions and findings, but that will have to be backed up by hard facts from a team of specialists.”

Kusac’s meal arrived and he began eat.

“They’re taking Guynor on board the shuttle,” said Mito, glancing through the window. “It can’t be long until we leave.”

All heads turned to look as Guynor, under an armed escort of two soldiers, was led into the waiting craft.

“What’s likely to happen to him?” asked Carrie.

“Mutiny when on a war footing, that at least will be a dishonorable discharge,” said Mito.

“No,” said Garras, looking at Kusac. “It’s more serious than that. There are . . . political complications.”

Kusac looked away and toyed with his food. “My fault, then,” he murmured.

“Nothing to do with you in a way. I found out he was from Khyaal, one of the two colonies destroyed by the Valtegans,” said Garras. “When we crashed on Keiss and realized that we’d found the Others, that was when his attitude changed. I presume it was because he was powerless to hit back at the beings who had destroyed not only his family, but his world. Then you two arrived. It gave him the perfect opportunity to release his pent up xenophobia on you.” Garras sighed. “He was a capable officer, but we can do without his attitude in the Forces.”

“And the political implications?” prompted Mito.

“I can’t discuss that matter with you since the court-martial is still pending,” said Garras, refusing to be drawn any further.

“By the way, I was none too pleased that you sent a message to the ship without my knowledge,” he said to Kusac. “Had you told me your fears for Carrie, I would have had no objections, but I thought you could have trusted my judgment a little better.”

Kusac dipped his head, flattening his ears backward in apology.

“Well, it’s done now,” Garras said, somewhat mollified. He checked his wrist unit, noting the time. “I want everyone on board the shuttle in ten minutes,” he said, rising to leave. “Carrie, Rhian and Askad will meet you there. I would suggest you take your leave of your father before it gets any later.”

Kusac watched her go, aware that she was still maintaining the distance between them despite what she’d said to her father the night before. Well, he’d promised her some space, he’d have to wait now until she came to him.

“Is Carrie alright?” asked Vanna quietly. “I know how difficult a time this is for her.”

“She’s coping,” he said, pushing his plate away. “She just needs a little space at the moment.”

Vanna grunted. “She doesn’t know her own mind. She’s subject to the same fears as us and responds to the same reassurances. What she really needs is you beside her to lean on.”

“I’ll deal with it my way, Vanna,” said Kusac, getting up.

Carrie boarded the shuttle first with Rhian and Askad, sitting at the rear of the craft. The Leska couple sat together, opposite her, leaving the seat beside her empty, presumably for Kusac.

A sense of isolation swept over her all of a sudden. Around her were only Sholans, not one of them familiar. The only one she knew, Guynor, was in the forward area under close guard. She thanked whichever Gods were looking after her that she hadn’t had to pass him.

Human voices and footsteps sounded on the gangway and cautiously she peered over the seat in front. It was a group of her people, including Skai. Under her breath she cursed, watching them move to the front section. What the hell was Skai, not to mention the others, doing going up to the Khalossa?

Ducking back out of sight, she lowered her mental shield, trying to sense what they were saying. Before she could, she picked up the crew of the Sirroki boarding, including Kusac.

With relief, she sent a thought to greet him, feeling his surprise, followed by a resulting wave of pleasure. Almost as if she was using her eyes, she could “see” him pushing through his friends to reach her.

He stopped by the seat, towering over her as he looked down.

Can I join you? he asked.

She smiled up at him, the relief apparent in her face as she nodded.

Kusac sat beside her, eyes narrowing.

What’s upset you? he sent.

Nothing. I’m just glad you’re here. From up front the Terran voices seemed loud and harsh in comparison to the low sounds of the Sholan conversations around her.

Kusac put his arm across her shoulders, drawing her up against him. There’s nothing to worry about, he sent reassuringly. You won’t be alone. I will be there, as will your other friends.

I know. She relaxed against him, letting her barriers down a little and closing her eyes as she felt his low purr begin. Exhausted by the effort of keeping the block against him up and fielding her father’s questions and demands, she felt herself nodding off to sleep.

Kusac felt her consciousness drift and as she began to slowly collapse against him he moved closer, easing her down till she lay sleeping across his lap. Automatically his hand went to stroke her hair, fingertips gently touching her cheek. His need for her flared and this time it took more concentration than before to push it to the back of his mind where he could contain it.

A low chuckle from Askad drew his attention as the shuttle door was sealed for take off. He looked over at the other male.

I can see that being of different species is not a problem to you or your Leska, Askad sent. The Link is already working its magic.

No, not the Link, Kusac replied. This is ours, the Link only enhances what we have.

Even better. It will make life easier for you both.

Her mind seems very similar to ours. Rhian ventured. Perhaps being with us on the Khalossa will not be as large a step as you feared.

Perhaps. There hasn’t been time for us to get to know each other properly yet, replied Kusac, ears flicking briefly.

What’s to know? Your minds are linked aren’t they? You are aware of each other’s feelings and strong surface thoughts, there is no need to know more, chided Askad.

Our Link is stronger than that. I know all her thoughts , I feel all her fears and joys as if they were mine. She’s become a part of me now. His attention was on Carrie and he missed the apprehensive look that the two Sholans exchanged.

Then the problems must be lessened with such close understanding, sent Rhian.

Must they? I know that what she calls pain will hurt me, that what she thinks of as love, so do I, but the rest . . . His thoughts trailed off into a silence that was filled by the humming of the engines.

Chyad waited impatiently for Maikoe to open the door.

“The rumors were true,” he said, before she had a chance to greet him.

“What rumors?” She moved aside to let him enter.

He nodded cursorily at the others as he stepped over them toward the chair that Kaedoe hastily vacated. “The ones about the Terrans coming on board,” he said, turning to face her as she let the door slide closed. “I traveled up in the elevator with one of them, a female.

“What are they like up close?” She returned to her seat.

“They smell strange,” he said, perching on the edge of the chair. “Like us but different. Unsettling. This one was either small or a youngling. Hre face was flatter than ours and hre skin is hairless except for on the head.”

“Hm,” she said, looking thoughtful as she picked up her mug. “Oh, help yourself to a drink if you want one.”

Chyad got up and went to the dispenser.

“I’ve just been telling the others about my interesting day,” she said.

“What did you find out?” he asked, returning to his seat.

“There were Terran collaborators. Mostly their females, many of whom went to work in the domed cities. The female telepath was one of them. I’ll bet it was her you saw.”

Chyad grunted in disgust.

“Naisha found out that one of the Sirroki crew is facing a court-martial for Challenging their own telepath.”


“Guynor,” said Naisha. “You remember him, surely? He’s one of us. He came from Khyaal.”

“I saw them taking someone off the shuttle under guard. Thought he looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Why’d he Challenge the telepath?”

Maikoe put her mug down and sat back in her chair. “He Challenged the female first, but he was stopped, so he Challenged the telepath instead. He went all the way, too: a Death Challenge, no less.”

Chyad sat forward, ears pricking with interest. “For what?”

“Because of the female Terran. He accused him of using his talent to make her pair with him.”

“And did he?”

Maikoe shrugged. “The trooper I spoke to didn’t know any more.”

“I don’t like it, Maikoe,” he said, shaking his head. “Why didn’t the Valegans kill the Terrans? They killed everyone on Khyaal and Szurtha. What was different here on this world? I have a strong feeling that this could be a trap. Allying ourselves with the Terrans could be the worst thing we’ve ever done. There are bound to be collaborators still on the planet, and having betrayed their own kind once, they won’t have any qualms about betraying us.”

“This world has fewer people on it,” volunteered Khay. “It could simply be that they didn’t see the few Terrans here as a threat.”

“I don’t agree with that,” said Ngalu. “If they let them live, there has to be a reason. I think Chyad’s right. They could be laying low, ready to signal the Valtegans when they think we’re at our most vulnerable.”

“There’s got to be something we can do,” said Maikoe. “There’s an official get-together for those of us who lost family in the seventh level mess in an hour’s time. Maybe if enough of us protest about this treaty, they’ll listen to us.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” said Chyad. “In fact, don’t say anything about how we feel if you go to the meeting. If we want to do something about this treaty, then we’ll have to do it ourselves, and we can’t do anything with the military protectorate looking over our shoulders. Believe me, if they get the faintest notion about how we feel, the protectorate will have us in the brig so fast our feet won’t touch the ground.”

Naisha looked uncomfortably at the others. “Look, I think we might be overreacting,” she said. “We’ve no proof that these Terrans are in league with the Valtegans. They’d been here for years before our colonies were destroyed. The Terrans could be victims just as our families were.”

Chyad took a swig of his drink and put the mug back on the table. “You could be right, Naisha,” he conceded. “What we need more than anything else is reliable information. Most of us work in different departments. Let’s see what we can find out. Does anyone know any of the Sirroki’s crew?” He looked at the other five people in Maikoe’s crowded room.

“I’ve flown with Mito Rralgu before,” said Maikoe, “but I wouldn’t say I really know her. Khay has, too.”

Khay looked over at her in surprise. “I don’t remember her,” he said.

“Just take my word for it,” Maikoe said.

“Well, see if you can get the chance to talk to her. The rest of you, see what gossip you can substantiate. Jakule,” he said, turning to the only trooper in the room. “You see what you can find out from any of your cronies running ground patrol duties.”

Jakule nodded. “I’ll see if I can get down planetside to talk to some of the Terrans,” he said.

“Just do as you’re asked, Jakule,” said Chyad, his tone sharp. “I don’t want you drawing attention to yourself. Ask your friends in the smoke den, see what they know. They must have managed to set up some black market deals in new narcotics by now.” His tone was full of contempt. “You’d better get on your way if you plan to make that meeting,” he said, looking round the rest of them. “I’ll be in touch. Remember, say nothing to anyone else at this moment, and let me know if you hear anyone else talking out against the treaty or the Terrans.”

He waited til they’d gone before getting up to fetch another mug of c’shar.

“What are you planning?” asked Maikoe, following him with her eyes. “You agreed far too readily with Naisha.”

“One or two of the others believe we’re right, but they’re all easily led,” he said. “I meant what I said. If we want to stop this treaty, we’ll have to do it ourselves.”

“You haven’t answered my question. What do you plan to do?” she repeated.

“I’m thinking that the quickest way to stop the talks if for there to be a Terran death on the Khalossa.”

Maikoe’s mouth fell open in shock. “You plan to kill one of them?” Her voice came out almost as a squeak.

Chyad frowned. “These talks aren’t going to take long. Can you think of a better or quicker way?”

“Aah, um. I haven’t’ actually been thinking along those lines,” she admitted.

“Then start thinking that way now, because I can’t see any act more guaranteed to make the Terrans back out of the talks.”

“It sounds like a suicide mission, Chyad,” she said. “I don’t feel like departing this life yet, thank you.”

He drained his mug. “I’ve no intention of getting us caught. That’s why I told them to say nothing of how they feel at this meeting. I’ll get in touch with you tomorrow. They’re one or two people I need to speak to. Try to find out where your friend Mito is and have a word with her. See what she thinks of the Terrans’ relations with the Valtegans.”

“Why are you so against the treaty?”

“Because I know the Terrans are in league with the Valtegans.”

As the shuttle set down on the landing bay, she woke, yawning and stretching.

“Why are my arms and legs never long enough when I want to stretch them?” she asked, stifling another yawn.

Kusac opened his mouth in a grin, the outer edges of which were beginning to curve, Terran style. “Are you sure you have no Sholan blood, cub?” he asked with a deep purr as he sat up.

Maybe it’s catching, she sent with a grin of her own. “Where do we go now?”

“You go with Rhian and Askad for the moment. I’ll have to accompany Captain Garras and the others for a debriefing. I will join you as soon as I can.”

The Sirrokicrew left the shuttle last, accompanied by Rhian and Askad. Carrie hesitated briefly at the top of the ramp, then Kusac’s steadying hand was there to reassure her as they stepped out into the chill and glare of the landing bay. As the cold air struck her, she shivered, remembering the last time she’d been in a spaceship. It was as cold here as it had been on the cryo level on the Eureka.

This isn’t the Eureka, Carrie, Kusac sent. We don’t have cryogenics on board. What happened to your mother can’t happen here.

I know, she replied, giving herself a small shake. I’m all right.

It was with relief she noted that there was no sign of the Terrans. All around her was the hustle and bustle of the various craft being serviced and refueled. At the far end of the bay, through a group of disembarking Sholans, she saw the retreating backs of Guynor and his guards.

We’re holding the others up, he sent gently, his hand tightening on her arm briefly.

She nodded and made her way down the gangway with him. At the bottom of the ramp her meager bag of possessions lay waiting for her.

Vanna sniffed the air dramatically as they all headed across the bay to the main exit.

“Gods, but it’s good to be home again!” she said. “The familiar smells of reprocessed air, my own room, a shower and a comfy bed! Shall we meet up for a meal in an hour or two?” she asked, looking first at Carrie then at Kusac.

“Sounds good,” said Carrie.

Kusac nodded.

“Rec level mess?” asked Vanna, as they stopped outside the elevator, waiting for it to return to their level.

Reluctantly Kusac nodded again.

The doors slid open and they stood back, waiting for those on it to leave. Carrie moved surreptitiously behind Kusac, trying to avoid the openly curious looks.

They piled into the lift, crowding toward the back of it to make space for the pilot and crew of one of the shuttles.

Sensing Carrie’s need to orient herself, as well as her slowly rising tide of panic, Kusac leaned down to speak to her. “We docked on the lower level bay, our main one. Now we’re going up to the ship level where we change elevators.”

“Ship level?”

“The ship has two types of levels. The first thirteen are where our ground forces live and work, the levels above that are the ship levels, where all the officers, pilots and those involved in running the Khalossa live.”

“Why separate levels? Aren’t you allowed to mix?”

“Yes, of course, but apart from the main mess and the concourse where the supply store and the bars are, the troopers tend to stick to themselves. Being ground troops. they don’t have a lot in common with us.”

The doors opened, and Rhian touched Carrie gently on the arm, drawing her attention. “This is our level,” she said.

Panic welled up and she was unable to take that first step away from Kusac’s side. She looked up at him.

“I’ll join you as soon as I’m finished,” he reassured her. “You’ll be fine with Rhian and Askad.”

“I’ll see you later too. You won’t get rid of me that easily!” joked Vanna as Carrie took a deep breath and followed the Leska pair out.

The doors closed and they continued on up to the administrative level.

“Is going to the Rec level mess so soon a good idea?” Kusac asked, his voice low. “Wouldn’t one of the smaller mess areas be better?”

Vanna shook her head. “She’ll have to mix with the rest of the ship’s crew soon enough, Kusac. Now is as good a time as any.”

“I think it’s too soon,” he said. “Everything we do is being rushed. Too much too soon,” he repeated.

Vanna shrugged. “The decision is yours, Kusac. You know her better.”

“That’s just it, I don’t,” he said tersely.

Though the rest were dismissed after only a few hours of grueling questioning, Kusac’s continued presence was requested by the officiating member of the Alien Relations Guild. Half an hour later he made his way to the nearest communicator booth with the official’s words still ringing in his ears.

“Have you any idea of the political implications involved in your Link with this human girl? You have? Well, I’m glad to hear it, because I’ll want a full explanation of why it happened from you and the Telepath Guild within the next few days! Her father is their equivalent of the planetary governor, and I’ll wager he’ll be none too impressed when he realizes the connotations of your association with his only daughter. Nor will he be overly pleased to discover she’s now part of the Sholan Forces because of that association!”

That was the least of what he’d said. Even the memory of that interview made Kusac wince. He keyed in the code for Rhian’s quarters but received a busy signal, then a message from Askad saying Rhian and Carrie were waiting for him in his room.

Cursing, he headed downwards. He should have arranged to meet them in their quarters rather than let them assume she was moving in with him. With her human frontier colonist morals . . . Within five minutes he was palming open the door.

Rhian rose as he entered. “You were quicker than we anticipated,” she said. “I expected you to be another couple of hours at least. I’ll see you both later, once you’ve settled in.”

“Isn’t this your room?” asked Carrie, looking from Rhian to Kusac.

“Good gracious, no!” she said with a laugh. “This is a single room. You’ll be moved to Leska quarters but probably not till tomorrow.”

“I thought I was staying with you,” said Carrie, getting up from the chair. “No one said anything about me living with Kusac. I can’t do it. I won’t.” There was a rising note of panic in her voice.

Rhian hesitated, sending a puzzled look in Kusac’s direction.

“It’s alright, Carrie” said Kusac, remaining where he was by the door. “There’s no need for you to stay here. It was just assumed that you would. I’m sure Rhian wouldn’t mind you living with them for a few days till we sort things out.”

She’s not ready for this yet. She needs a little time to get used to our ways, he sent to Rhian. Can’t she stay with you?

“Of course you can stay with us,” said Rhian, “if you’re sure that’s what you want?”

“Yes,” said Carrie, grabbing her bag before the Sholan female changed her mind. Then, as she realized the implications, she looked at Kusac. “It isn’t that I don’t . . .” she faltered.

Kusac made a dismissive gesture with his hand, tail flicking briefly. “It’s alright, cub,” he said. “I understand. Stay a few days with Rhian and Askad till you know your own mind better.”

“If you’re going to meet up with your friends at the mess, we’d better hurry,” said Rhian. “I’ll have her there in about an hour, Kusac.”

Kusac shut the door behind them, tail twitching in annoyance as he walked over to the bathroom. Unfastening his belt he pressed the seals on his jacket, taking it off and flinging it on his bed in passing. He was tired, mentally and physically tired, of trying to understand Carrie and keep pace with her moods.

He’d studied the Touiban and Chemerian cultures and even worked with them for a while, but that had been on Shola and those aliens had been experienced space travelers. She was not. He’d never been involved in First Contact before. Studied it, yes, but the reality was entirely different, especially when the alien involved was his Leska.

Despite their Link, despite their closeness, every forward step he tried to take with her was like moving through a thornbush. He needed time to think through what he’d picked up about her culture during his stay with her in Valleytown and compare it with the memories he had assimilated from her. Maybe then he could anticipate the problems before they appeared. At the moment they seemed to stumble from one crisis to another and that was no way to build a relationship. Perhaps some time on his own was what he needed, too.

He stepped into the shower, turning on the water, and reached for the soap container. What was Carrie’s problem anyway? They both knew how they felt about each other, so why the difficulty over their pairing? Her people took one partner for life and though his didn’t, he was offering her the same. She wouldn’t lose status among Sholans by being his Leska, quite the opposite. It was considered a mark of favor by the Gods, Vartra in particular, to have a Leska. But an alien Leska? How would that affect his life?

He sighed, stopping that line of thought and letting the hot water sluice over him, washing the soap and grime away and easing some of the tension from his muscles.

His mind began to drift again. Leskas. Now that he was back on board the Khalossa he could find out what a Leska link involved. Hurriedly, he switched off the water and, grabbing a towel, headed back into his bedroom. Switching on the desk comm, he keyed in his ident and logged into the Telepath Guild library for their files on Leskas.

He toweled himself absently as he scanned through the general information; then, as the subject divided into detailed topics, he found that certain files were sealed.

Damn! That boded ill. It was even more vital that he have access to those files. He sat down, weighing the risk of discovery now against the certainty that his identity was going to come out into the open within a few days. Resolutely he punched in his own security code, opening up the remainder of the files. As he read further, he forgot everything else.

A chime sounded from the comm and he blinked, taken by surprise. Reaching out, he keyed in the vidiphone channel; Vanna’s face came on the screen.

“Is everything alright, Kusac?” she asked, an ear twitching in concern. “Carrie’s already here with us. Are you coming?”

Mentally he gave himself a shake. “Yes. I’ll be there in ten minutes,” he said. “Sorry.”

She nodded. “See you.”

The screen blanked, returning him to his files. He closed the channel and switched off, realizing with a shiver that he was still damp.

Picking up the discarded towel, he began to rub himself vigorously but it did nothing to dispel the chill he felt inside.

Rhian and Askad lived on level 20. Their quarters were the more spacious ones reserved for Leska pairs and boasted a small lounge and two bedrooms. Carrie was shown to a room the same size as Kusac’s had been.

“You have the room with the bath,” said Rhian, indicating a door to the rear of the bedroom.

“How come you have two bedrooms?” Carrie asked, dumping her bag on the floor.

“This is Askad’s room, when he chooses to use it,” Rhian said, stuffing the contents of a couple of drawers into a cupboard. “You can use these while you’re here. I have the larger room, which we’re both using at present.”

She moved over to the wardrobe, clearing a space for her unexpected guest there, too. “Why should we want separate rooms?” Rhian turned round to look at Carrie, cocking her head on one side, ears turning in her direction. “Why not? We have our own lives to lead, and occasionally one of us meets someone nice with whom we wish to spend a few days or weeks.”

Misinterpreting her startled look, Rhian grinned in the open-mouthed Sholan style. “We work for Alien Relations,” she said. “I can pick up very little from you telepathically as yet, but the ‘Why?’ was so loud I think even the untalented could have heard you!”

She handed Carrie a thick toweling robe. “Here, go and have a bath. After a month living rough, I’m sure you’re feeling itchy and uncomfortable. Admin will catch up with you in a day or two and make sure you’re issued with all the essentials. I’ll lend you what you need till then.” With that she was gone, leaving Carrie to her own devices.

The bathroom was easily navigated, and though there wasn’t the time for a long soak, she emerged feeling refreshed and clean for the first time in several weeks. As she toweled her hair, she came back through to the bedroom.

An oval bed dominated the room. Gingerly she sat on the edge of it, half afraid she would roll into the central bowl-shaped depression. Unbidden, an image of a curled-up sleeping Sholan sprang to mind. The memories from Kusac were blending into hers now as she began to experience life in his culture. It was unsettling.

She sensed Rhian outside the door before she heard the knock.

Carrie opened the door, admitting Rhian and an armful of brightly colored clothes.

“I have some clothes I can lend you until you have the time to buy your own,” she said.

“I’ve brought some things with me, thanks,” Carrie said.

“Let me show you them anyway,” said Rhian, depositing her bundle on the bed. “Certain plain colors denote the guilds and cannot be worn by anyone other than guild members. As a telepath, you are entitled to wear purple like us and it would be wise to be seen wearing it from the first so everyone is aware of your status.”

“What status?” asked Carrie, an edge to her voice. “Do I have to proclaim to the world I’m part of a Leska team?”

“The color only tells others you are of the Telepath Guild,” said Rhian calmly, her tail giving an involuntary twitch. “When the guild grades you, you’ll wear a mark of rank on your uniform. Next to it will be the symbol ‘L’ to show you are part of a Leska pair. It is necessary,” she said, her voice rising as Carrie opened her mouth to protest. “Should there be an accident, they will know that you have a partner nearby who must also be found. You’ll need to wear that badge on your leisure clothes, too. All this will be explained to you later, not now.”

Carrie subsided, muttering. “Kusac’s already told me.” She knew Rhian was not the one to argue with over this.

“Look,” said the Sholan female, reaching out fleetingly to touch Carrie on the arm. “You are a new species. Do you really think news of your telepathic abilities and your Link to one of our people hasn’t already spread throughout the ship? We’ve been in space for seven months now. It has been boring beyond belief until we arrived here. The events on Keiss, with you and Kusac as the central characters, will be the subject of gossip for a long time to come. What does a small insignia on your collar matter more or less? If you fight all our customs before you understand them, you’ll wear yourself out to no purpose. Now, come on,” she said persuasively. “You’re about to go and enjoy your first real Sholan meal with friends. Let’s choose something nice for you to wear.”

Despite her protests, Carrie let herself be persuaded into borrowing some of the less brightly colored clothes to augment her rather drab trousers. Those she refused to leave off. Finally she chose a long blue overtunic with panels split to mid thigh and a contrasting undertunic.

“Hm,” said Rhian, regarding her critically. “It’s longer on you because of your lack of height. Just as well you don’t have a tail,” she grinned, picking a purple sash off the bed and tying it round Carrie’s waist. “That’s better,” she said. “It matches the edging on the tunic.”

“Rhian, we’re only meeting up for a meal,” said Carrie, exasperated by the fuss the Sholan was making over her clothing.

“Meals, and first impressions, are important,” chided the older female. “You will blend in more if you dress like us. Besides, Kusac will like what you are wearing,” she said. “In fact, even though your legs are covered, the robe still enhances them enough to interest more males than just him, I’ll warrant! Now come, else we’ll be late.”

As Rhian grabbed her by the wrist and towed her into the lounge where Askad was waiting, Carrie made a low noise of disgust. She felt overdressed by her standards to say the least , and only hoped that Rhian knew what she was doing. Still, both she and her Leska were now wearing casual clothes of a similar style.

The trip to the mess hadn’t been as bad as she’d feared. There had been many curious glances, but they were just that, nothing more.

“Now you see why I suggested you wear Sholan clothes,” whispered Rhian as they joined Vanna and Garras at a small table in the quieter area of the room. “You are just the Terran Telepath to them, and naturally you would be in the company of other telepaths. ”

Rhian was right. Dressed as she was, she blended in amidst the colorfully dressed Sholans. She was glad to sit down and let the general hubbub of noise wash over her. In the more familiar company of Vanna and Garras–Mito having been unable to come–Carrie began to relax.

Kusac arrived late, fur still damp from his shower. He took the seat between Carrie and Rhian.

“Sorry I’m late, I had some business to attend to,” he apologized.

“Your first meal back on the Khalossa and you didn’t even bother changing,” scolded Rhian.

“It is a clean jacket. I didn’t want to keep you waiting any longer,” he said, turning to Carrie, his hand briefly touching hers in greeting.

“It’s as well you didn’t,” said Garras, an amused look on his face. “You might not have had a Leska waiting for you. We’ve had to fend off at least two hopeful young males.”

“Excuse me?” said Carrie, startled .

“Pheromones,” stated Vanna. “Jo has to be right. ”

“Are you trying to tell me . . . ? You mean they weren’t just being friendly?”

“They were being very friendly, until we suggested they leave,” said Askad with a grin.

“How could they!” exclaimed Carrie. “Surely they know I have a Leska,” she faltered, glancing at Kusac.

“There’s no need to take offense,” said Rhian, puzzled by the human female’s reaction. “They were very careful to behave courteously.”

“Carrie’s people form a bond with only one person,” said Kusac quietly.

“Ah, like the Touibans,” said Askad.

“No harm was done, Carrie, nor insult intended,” said Vanna, leaning forward to pat the girl reassuringly on the hand. “In fact the opposite.”

“I said more than Kusac would find you attractive, didn’t I?” said Rhian with a laugh that bordered on a purr.

“Let’s get some food,” said Kusac abruptly, getting to his feet and waiting for Carrie to join him.

Confused, she reached for him as she got to her feet. Mentally and physically, he lent a steadying hand.

It’s the Sholan way, cub, he sent. Look at the memories you gained from me when we Linked the first time. You’ll understand it better now. Vanna or Rhian can tell you more about our ways. Ask them.

Are your women often approached like this?

It depends. Often they do the approaching too. He hesitated. There are ways I can prevent this happening if you wish.

I wish! Do it now.

No one will approach you when we’re together, he said, his hand tightening on hers. We’ll talk of other ways later.

Reassured, she moved closer to him as they approached the serving area.

“Did Rhian lend you those clothes?” he asked. “You look really good in them. They suit you.”

“She wanted me to wear the Telepath Guild colors.”

“Sensible. It gives you the protection of my guild from the first. Now, let’s see what they’ve got to eat today,” he said, stopping at a board of glowing cursive script.

The meals she’d shared with them so far hadn’t prepared her for the food on the Khalossa. The Sholan diet was rich in meats, but the variety of sauces they were either cooked in or served with was extensive. Vegetables and fruit were numerous too.

After they’d eaten, they made their way from the mess through to the main concourse, the common leisure area of the Khalossa. It was very different from what she had seen of the ship so far. Here was no narrow corridor of identical doorways all painted a utilitarian restful gray.

The first thing that struck Carrie about the concourse, apart from how large and open it was, was the view. The blackness of space lit by a myriad of tiny pinpoints of light gleamed beyond the transparent wall. She could only stand and stare in wonder as the limitless vista called to something deep in her soul.

She reached out, fingers tentatively touching the window. In her mind she could feel Kusac’s gentle amusement.

This is why you and I left our home, he sent, his hand closing on her shoulder. A new life and new worlds among the stars.

It’s so beautiful, I had no idea!

How could you, tied to one world? He gestured with his other hand toward the stars. That’s where the future lies, and we’re part of it.

Yes, she sighed, laying both palms against the cool surface. No barriers to stop us, just the vastness of space before us. I don’t think I could bear to leave it.

“I don’t want to hurry you,” said Vann’s voice from behind them, “but you’ve been starstruck for the last ten minutes! Do you think we could leave now? I’d rather like to get a drink.”

“I’m sorry, Vanna,” said Carrie, turning around. “It’s just so beautiful!”

“I gathered you were somewhat impressed by it when your eyes glazed over and you started stalking across the concourse. It was as if nothing else existed, the way you were prepared to walk through anyone in your way!”

“I didn’t,” said Carrie aghast, looking round in embarrassment. Sholans sitting around the tables by the window were regarding their little group with indulgent amusement.

Put your shield up, cub, came Kusac’s warning. They aren’t laughing at you, they’re just enjoying your pleasure. It reminds them of their first time in space.

Carrie concentrated on building a mental barrier as they moved off toward one of the doorways with tables and chairs outside it.

“Where are we?” she asked.

“This is called the concourse,” said Garras. “Over there are the main stores for both ship levels. That’s where we get all the day-to-day essentials like brushes, soap — stuff like that.”

“Over there,” said Vanna, pointing to the opposite side, “that’s where you get the few luxury items that the Khalossa carries. Hair decorations, cosmetics, some leisure clothes, snack foods — things that make life a little more varied on a starship like this.”

“In the center they sell memory cubes for the comms and the notepads, ones with books on them,” said Kusac.

“Books? What kind of books?”

“Whatever you want,” said Vanna. “Some are stories told by our leading storytellers, others you read yourself. You can get them on any subject you want. Like the clothing, if they haven’t got it in, they can order it for delivery on the next supply ship.”

“Would you like to go into the store?” asked Rhian.

“No, thanks,” she said, moving closer to Kusac as she became aware that she was the focus of many curious looks. Suddenly the concourse seemed full of people. A headache was building and all she wanted to do was sit down in a quiet area away from the noise and bustle.

Remember your shield, cub, sent Kusac, picking up on her distress.

As she strengthened her barrier again, the headache began to fade and the noise seemed to lessen.

“It’s a shift change,” siad Vanna. “That’s why it’s gotten so busy. Let’s get settled before all the seats are gone.”

The bar was not dissimilar to her father’s, having a long counter with several tall stools placed beside it as well as the surrounding tables and chairs. They chose to sit at the counter, the six of them forming a little knot at one end. Perhaps because of the semifamiliar surroundings, or perhaps because of the company, she finally found herself slipping back into the easier relationship she’d had with Kusac before the raid on the Valtegan base. She’d found a referent to counter the culture shock that has suddenly begun to hit her.

Since leaving Rhian and Askad’s quarters, she’d been watching the Sholans, trying to see them as a people now that she had the opportunity. They were gregarious, liking to be in groups rather than couples. As Vanna and Kusac had said, there were far more males than females but that didn’t stop their clothing from being on the flamboyant side. Her outfit was nothing spectacular compared to some.

They were also a highly tactile species, as she had already guessed. Within their groups, they frequently touched their partners or friends. The exceptions were her telepath companions. She’d already picked up Rhian and Askad’s reluctance to touch anyone not of their guild, but they showed their affection for their friends in the featherlight touch of fingers against their cheeks.

The same was true with Kusac, though tonight he touched no one but her, his hand straying frequently to where hers lay on the counter. His need to touch her, as if for reassurance she was there–not to mention her growing reciprocal need–was no more than others were doing.

She sat quietly, sipping the rather heady drink she’d been given and listened to them discussing the reports they were due to hand in to the Admin office in the morning. She leaned against Kusac, pleased when he put an arm around her shoulders, his fingertips gently stroking her neck for a moment or two.

“Kusac, what happens when you’ve to go back to work?” she asked. “What do I do? Come to think of it, what do you do?”

“We’re on leave for the moment.” he said. “After what we went through on Keiss, we’ve been given ten days off.”

“You’ve got longer,” said Askad. “New Leska pairs get an extra five days, fifteen in all, so as to get to know their partner better. During that time they meet with their Tutor to assess their working capabilities. Once that’s been done, then they’re reassigned to appropriate duties. I presume the same will happen with you.”

“What do telepaths do on the Khalossa? What do you do?”

“I don’t so much do, as work with people and advise them about what needs doing,” he said vaguely, keeping his eyes turned away from Rhian and Askad.

“Yes, what have you been doing, Kusac?” asked Rhian, her tone a little sharp. “You’re wearing a grade five badge, but I’ll warrant that isn’t your true level.”

“It was suggested that I needed the experience, so I’ve been working with the military protectorate in the trop levels. Yuu know the sort of thing,” he said. “Assessing situations and advising what level of telepath is needed to defuse any potential trouble. Glorified crowd control.”

“Hm,” siad Rhian, obviously not convinced. “It’ll be interesting to see what you’re doing three weeks from now.”

“You want to know what we do,” siad Vanna from across the curve of the bartop. “Well, I’m up in the medical section taking my turn in the wards with any of the injured or ill, or I’m in the labs running tests. I was included on the Sirrokibecause it was on a three-month mission, and they needed a medic on board.”

“I pilot scouters,” siad Garras. “Normally I’d be plying the trade routes for my clan, but I was drafted in to fly the scouters doing reconnaissance and survey work. Again, I’ll be on leave for the next few days. After that, who knows what they’ll find for me to do?”

“It’s not exactly leave,” siad Vanna. “We’ve still to be properly debriefed. AlRel will want to talk to us, then they’ll want us to have medicals. The Telepathic Medics have scheduled a session for you tomorrow morning, Carrie. It won’t be too much of an ordeal as they’ve been told you’re a healer. That means no psych profiles and a minimal physical examination. Rhian and I will be with you, so you won’t have to go through it alone,” she reassured her. She looked up to Kusac. “Your session is in the afternoon.”

“Are they afraid I’m carrying some strange germs or something?” asked Carrie.

“No, of course not,” she laughed. “We all went through decontam as we came off the shuttle. You’re a new species, they want some tissue and blood samples so they can run their batteries of tests. If you take ill, they have to know how you’ll respond to our drugs. They also need to key your physiology into the computers so we know how to reproduce your blood, plasma–all those things.”

Underlying Vanna’s voice, Carrie was aware of the sound of Terrans coming into the bar.

“Why do they want to see me?” asked Kusac.

“They don’t, I do,” said Vanna. “I’m curious to see if there have been any chemical changes in your brain because of your Link. And I want to check on your leg wound. The bandage needs changing.”

Kusac frowned thoughtfully.

Carrie meanwhile had leaned back to glance quickly towards the door. It was Skai and the rest of the Terran party. She ducked back against Kusac, trying to make herself invisible in the faint hope they wouldn’t recognize her. Several of the Sholan women she’d seen wore their hair long.

Skai spotted Vanna and called out a friendly greeting just as Kusac picked up Carrie’s distress.

“I hear there’s a Terran woman on board,” said a loud voice, “keeping company with one of your males.”

Kusac, leaning down towards Carrie, froze.

“That’s him,” said Lawson, the owner of the voice as he walked over towards them. “The telepath. Found one of your own kind instead, eh?” His ribald laugh died as Kusac turned to face him, exposing Carrie.

“So they were right,” he continued, his voice low and full of venom. “You’re the one from Geshader. Bloody little no-good tramp!”

Kusac began to snarl, lips pulled back to expose his large and deadly canines. “How dare you talk to my Leska like that.”

Skai tried to pull him back. “Leave it, Lawson. You met her sister, not Carrie.”

“So?” said the man belligerently, pulling away. “Some bloody family they are! Both of them no better than . . .”

“Shut up, Lawson!” said Anders, cutting him short and trying to step between him and Kusac. “You’ve had too much to drink. Leave them be, they aren’t harming anyone. It’s none of our business.”

Carrie moved back, trying frantically to get off her stool. Fear and anger warred in her in equal proportions and she knew Kusac could feel it.

“No, I won’t shut up,” said Lawson, staggering slightly as he pulled free of Skai for the second time. “I want to know why she keeps screwing aliens! Is she a pervert or something?”

Skai backed off, trying to catch Carrie’s eye, but it was Vanna that was staring at him.

“Nothing to do with me, honestly,” he said, spreading his arms.

Anders grabbed for Lawson as the fourth member of their group ran to help. Together they tried to haul him back towards the door.

As Kusac leapt off his stool, Carrie lost her balance and tumbled off to be caught by Garras. She was thrust unceremoniously towards Vanna as he left the bar to circle round the side of the angry group.

Slowly Kusac padded over to where Anders and Perry had managed to haul Lawson. He was in a half crouch, tail lashing, ears so flat and to the side they were almost lost against his black fur. The hair across his neck and shoulders was raised and from his narrowed eyes, the pupils glowed red.

Carrie sensed Lawson through Kusac’s huntersight. He had focused on his prey with the concentration and single-mindedness of a telepath. His need to kill this . . . person . . . for such a mortal insult was paramount.

“Garras!” Carrie called out frantically. “For God’s sake stop him! He’s Hunting!”

Kusac stood before the man, trying to force back the tide of anger that raced through his blood. At his sides his hands clenched, fresh pain shooting through his already injured palms but by doing that he managed to keep his claws retracted. He’d had enough of the Terran bigotry.

Lawson, with the strength of the drunk, pulled free of the two men and crouched down in a parody of Kusac’s stance. The large man spread his arms. “Come on, kitty. What’re you going to do, eh?”

“He’ll do nothing,” sneered Norris, who till now had kept out of it. “He’s got no guts, he’s only a Telepath! They can’t fight. Stupid bitch couldn’t even choose a real cat!”

The angry group had spread to the center of the room by now. Around them, the Sholans were hurriedly leaping out of the way, one or two braver souls hauling the nearest tables clear.

Instinct suddenly took over and Kusac lashed out at Lawson’s head. The human went sprawling, crashing into Anders, then staggering to a halt against a table.

Kusac leapt after him only to find Garras there first. The Captain pushed Kusac back then caught the blow intended for the telepath in a fist twice the size of Lawson’s. With his other fist he landed a blow of his own, hitting the Terran on the jaw and felling him like a male rhakla. The two Sholans exchanged a brief glance then turned to face the other Terrans.

“First bar brawl?” Garras asked Kusac with humor. “Enjoy it, just get out of hunter/kill mode,” he growled, landing Kusac a stinging blow across the ears.

“Hey!” said Kusac, shaking his head and blinking, but it had had the desired effect. The killing urge had gone. Perversely, he wished it hadn’t.

Skai and Anders, hands held up at shoulder level to show their neutral state, were backing off, leaving Perry and Norris. Hurriedly Perry joined them.

Likewise, Garras moved away from Kusac.

“Well, now,” Norris drawled. “Looks like it’s just you and me.”

Kusac’s mind was suddenly swamped by Carrie’s memories of his last fight, the Death Challenge that Guynor had called. Mentally he called Rhian, telling her to get Carrie out of there and back to their quarters, then he blanked his Leska out.

Norris took advantage of his apparent hesitation and came barreling in, determined to get in as close as possible before the deadly claws could get him.

The first blow caught Kusac in the stomach, winding him and causing him to double up. This gave Norris the opportunity to land a couple of punches before Kusac was able to recover enough to retaliate.

Shoving him backwards, Kusac swung at the Terran’s head but missed and hit him a glancing blow on the shoulder instead. His hand drew back ready to try again, then he was roughly seized from behind.

“Enough!” a voice bellowed in his ear as his arms were pulled backwards and pinned behind him. He remained still as the security personnel pounced on Norris, Garras and the Terrans.

Oblivious to his own situation, Kusac sent again to Rhian, demanding to know if they had got clear before security had arrived.

We’re clear and on our way home, she replied.

They were hauled before Sub-Commander Kolem, who didn’t take kindly to the incident. After a blistering dressing-down to Sholans and Terrans alike–relayed to the latter group by the senior telepath translator on duty–they were dismissed. The Terrans, in the custody of two security guards, were escorted to their quarters to remain there until the following day. Garras and Kusac remained behind.

“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” demanded Sub-Commander Kolem. “You were the ones who contacted these people first, the ones who gave them an impression–Vartra help us!–of all Sholans! You lived with them, fought for them, made a trade agreement with them,” his eyes pinned Garras at this, “started peace negotiations with them, and now you engage them in a barroom brawl!”

Garras flinched from the glare, ears lowering.

Kolem got to his feet and began pacing, tail flicking from side to side in barely suppressed fury. “Never in all my years in the Forces have I had to discipline a ship’s Captain or a telepath for brawling. What in hell am I supposed to do with you?” he demanded of Kusac.


“Are you listening to me?”

Kusac nodded, eyes beginning to glaze noticeably.

Kolem grunted and began pacing again. “We’ve barely begun negotiations with Hamilton, and your Link to his daughter has weakened our position. He isn’t yet aware of the implications of that bond, but he’s damned suspicious and displeased about it. Your actions today could have jeopardized the treaty before it’s even been drafted!” He stopped in front of Kusac again. “With your background, there is no excuse for this kind of behavior. Of all people, I should have been able to rely on you to keep the peace!”

Angrily he returned to his desk. “Garras, brawling like a junior officer is not what I expect from a Captain of your seniority, even if you have been drafted in from the Merchants. Your leave is canceled. You’ll return to duty on your next scheduled shift. Till then you’re confined to your quarters,” he snapped.

“Sub-Commander,” interrupted Adjutant Myak, moving forward to catch Kusac as he began to sway. “His Leska is in severe distress. She’s broadcasting on a wide band, every telepath will be picking her up. Look at him,” he said as Kusac gratefully leaned against him, “he’s taking little of this in because of her mental state.”

Kolem made an exasperated noise. “Get him out of here! See he joins her. And fetch the medic, the one who was with them on Keiss. I want that Terran female calmed down now before the Telepath Guild starts their complaints! Kusac’s confined to quarters until further notice.”

“Yes sir,” said Myak, assisting Kusac through to the outer office. “I’ll see to it personally.”

When Garras left, Kolem turned to Draz, head of security. “What was the fracas about?”

“Species prejudice from two of the Terrans, sir. Specifically comments relating to the nature of the relationship between our crewman and the human female.”

“Who was responsible for the Terrans’ orientation program? They should have picked up those sort of attitudes then and dealt with them so this sort of situation couldn’t occur!”

`”Apparently it hasn’t taken place yet, sir. It’s scheduled for the sixth hour tomorrow. Unfortunately, I was not informed of this, or I would have ordered that the Terrans be confined to their quarters till then.”

“Find out who’s responsible. I’ll nail their hides to the wall,” growled Kolem, flinging himself into his seat. “Right now the fate of this sector of space hangs in the balance. We must secure this treaty, or the Alliance remains vulnerable to further Valtegan attacks. If anything happens to Kusac or his Leska, we could have more trouble than you or I could imagine, both from Shola and from Keiss, and we’re stuck right in the middle of it.”

He shook his head. “A telepath with an alien Leska, a telepath who now initiates fights! The Commander is just going to love this.” He sighed. “You’d better prepare a report for Commander Raguul as soon as possible. See that someone from your department escorts Kusac and his Leska to meals until we’ve transferred them to Leska quarters. At least he has her company.”

“Apparently not, sir. My men tell me that she is staying with the Leska pair, Rhian and Askad.”

Kolem lifted an eyebrow in surprise. “I presume the guild is aware of this?”

“Yes, sir. They have their own people watching them.”

“Poor devils. They can’t make a move without someone seeing it. Well, I suppose it’s the price they have to pay for their Link.”

“Yes, sir,” said Draz dubiously.

“Contact the guild anyway, Draz. I want them to find out why I suddenly have a territorial male telepath on my crew. Commander Raguul will shortly be asking me the same question, and I want to have an answer for him.”

“Yes sir.”

Vanna was leaving as Kusac arrived with Myak. “I was coming to look for you,” she said to him. “I’ll take care of him, Lieutenant, if you have no objections?”

“Certainly, Physician Kijishi,” said Myak, disentangling himself from Kusac’s arm and letting her take his weight.

Vanna raised an eye ridge at the Lieutenant, ears swiveling towards him as she wrapped an arm round Kusac’s waist.

“Commander Raguul would like to see you as soon as is convenient,” Myak said quietly to her before he left.

When he’d gone, Kusac pulled himself upright, leaning against the doorframe. “Promotion?” he asked tiredly.

“And how,” said Vanna. “I wonder what the cost is. That sort of promotion doesn’t come cheap. Never mind that. I’ve given Carrie a suppressant. It should take full effect in about fifteen or so minutes. Can you cope for now or do you need one too?”

He shook his head. “I’ll manage,” he said. “It’s only making me light headed now. The nause’s stopped.” He started to move slowly toward the doors at the far end of the room. “Which room is she in?”

“On the right. I’ll wait for you,” she said, her professional eye picking up the tinge of white that were his nictitating lids showing at the edges of his eyes.

So great was the turmoil in her mind that Carrie remained unaware of his presence until he sat down on the bed beside her.

As she turned round, he took her hands in his.

It’s alright. I’m here and safe, and so are you, he sent.

“I’ve had enough, Kusac,” she said. “I can’t take any more of this reaction to us. When we’re alone like this, it’s fine, we’re all that matters. With others around . . .” Her shoulders lifted in a shrug. “Your people are alright. It’s mine that are the problem.” A tear ran down her cheek.

“Don’t cry, cub,” he said, tilting her chin up to wipe the tear away. “The Terrans won’t be on board for long. I’ll make sure we stay away from them if you prefer.” His hand moved to the back of her neck, gently soothing the tight muscles, thinking relaxation into her body. He could feel the drug beginning to work as her thoughts became gradually weaker.

“Can’t you see that it shouldn’t have to be like this?” she said. “Why can’t they accept that we have a loving friendship and just leave us alone?”

There was an edge of hysteria to her voice that troubled him.

“A little more than a friendship,” he murmured, as his eyes were unconsciously drawn to her throat. Long and slender, it was a throat that many a Sholan female would kill for. He caught himself up and looked back to her face.

Another tear, quickly followed by a third, was falling.

“They won’t let us have anything, Kusac,” she said. “All we really have is this damned link. I wish it had never happened!”

“This isn’t like you, cub,” he said, encircling her in his arms and drawing her close. “I know you don’t really mean that. We have the Link, yes, but we also have each other.” He nuzzled her chin upwards, this time licking her tears away.

He felt her stiffen slightly, the,. as he continued to lick her check, she relaxed. Her hands came up to rest on his arms and her fingertips began to push through the thick pile of his fur seeking the skin beneath.

He kissed her, letting his feelings for her come to the surface of his mind, slowly at first, waiting till she accepted them. This time, for a wonder, she did and he felt her mind begin to quiet and respond to him.

He let his hand stray across her arm, then down her back to her thigh, enjoying the clean muscular feel of her limbs. Differences between their species there were, but she possessed many of the qualities Sholan males looked for in their women.

The compulsion born of their Link had built so gradually in him this time that only now did he realize it was there. He felt it echoed in her as hesitantly her fingers searched for the seal on his jacket. His hand guided her as she opened it, then as she laid her head against his chest, he began to untie the sash around her tunic.

Cautiously he slid his hand across the bare skin of her back. Perhaps finally they could resolve the physical side of their Link.

She froze, her mind losing its softness and becoming brittle again as she pulled back from him, a look of panic on her face.

Kusac released her instantly. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“This isn’t us, Kusac, it’s the damned link,” she said, a catch in her voice as she continued to back away from him. “I won’t be driven by this compulsion!”

“You’ve got it confused, cub,” he said, forcing himself to remain calm. “The compulsion only enhances what we feel for each other. If our emotions weren’t involved, there would be no worrying over whether what we feel is us or the Link. Pairing is only the mechanism that brings Leskas close enough so they can work as a bonded team. It’s part of their working relationship. You’re worrying over something that is too small to matter.”

“It’s important to me,” she said, fetching up against the wall at the head of the bed. “I’ve lived too long with other people’s illusions of what I am and what I should be. I want to know what’s real for me. ”

She pulled her legs up, wrapping her arms protectively round them. “My head is full of memories that aren’t mine, Kusac. They’re yours, yet they feel as real to me as if I’d lived them. Maybe it’s easier for you with your training, but that coupled with being always aware of what you’re thinking and doing means I’m losing myself and becoming only `us, and it frightens me!”

“That’s because the Link is still incomplete, Carrie,” he said. “We need to pair to make it complete, then it will be easier, I promise.”

“How can you know?” she demanded. “You’ve never had a Leska before.”

“I checked it out in the Guild files,” he said.

“Theory! What do they know about us or our Link? I’m an alien, or hadn’t you noticed?” she said caustically.

“I’d noticed,” he said, suppressing his anger. “Were you Sholan, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. There are no guarantees, Carrie, you know that. I can only tell you what is known about Leska Links.”

He sighed and got to his feet. “This is getting us nowhere. We can’t go on like this, Leska. I can’t cope with any more of this, it’s too painful for both of us. You know what I feel for you and you know what I have to offer. If you want me, you come. You’ve got four days in which to decide; I can’t give you any longer. If your answer is no, then somehow I’ll find a way to break the Link. It should be possible since, as you reminded me, you’re an alien, not a Sholan.”

Stopping at the door to fasten his jacket, he turned back to her. “You aren’t a youngling, Carrie. You’re a grown female among your own kind. Find out what your heart wants, what is really important to you, not what your intellect says should be. Just see you don’t leave it too long, or I may not be there for you when you finally make your decision.”

As he closed the door behind him, Vanna looked up.

“Where’s Rhian and Askad?” he asked.

“In the other room, keeping out of the way of Carrie’s broadcast. How is she? Even with the slight differences in her system the drug should have taken effect by now.”

“The drug’s working. I can feel her presence in my mind, but that’s all. She’s emotionally overwrought at the moment, Vanna. I think it best she remains here tonight. Rhian has agreed,” he said, making his way across the room to her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked sharply, getting to her feet as she saw the set of his ears.

“Nothing. I’m just tired, that’s all.”

“I don’t believe that for a moment,” she said, reaching up to touch his cheek. “You’ve got a nasty bruise coming there. Let me see to it.”

He pulled away from her, going to the door. “I’m fine. Look, I’ve got to go. I’m confined to quarters because of the fight.” He touched the door sensor, waiting for it to open. “I’ll see you later.”

“I’m finished here,” she said, following him. “Don’t forget that appointment at the medical section tomorrow afternoon.”

Carrie sat looking bleakly at the door. Well, she’d got what she’d asked for. Her mind was quiet, just an awareness of a faint pressure that was Kusac, none of his thoughts. He’d given her the time and space that she’d asked for.

She sat there, going over in her mind what he’d said about the link. Unbidden, memories of time spent studying and practicing linking in to medics, to Chemerians and Touibans all came flooding in, demanding to be sorted and relearned by her. Whatever she chose, there would always be Kusac’s memories. Her headache began to return as, panicking, she fought to control them, to push them down to a level where they wouldn’t intrude on her consciousness.

“. . .the Link is still incomplete.” She heard the echo of his voice as finally she succeeded, knowing it was only a temporary victory. Instinctively she reached for him but met only solitude and the pain flaring behind her eyes.

Turning Point Excerpt by on


Carrie slept lightly, on the edge of wakefulness as always when Elise was working at Geshader, the Alien Pleasure City. Despite the sleeping pill and her sister’s mental block, vague images from Elise drifted through her sleeping mind, interweaving themselves with her dreams.

Once more dwarfed by the size of her parents, she tossed and turned in a sweat-soaked bed, moaning in agony as they and the doctor probed and pressed the livid bruises on her back and arm, looking for a more serious injury that didn’t exist… for her. Then they thought to check her twin.

They found Elise sitting placidly with her right arm at an impossible angle and blood from the lacerations on her back slowly seeping through her clothes into the sofa. She had been the one who had fallen out of a tree.

Carrie had hardly felt the sting of the hypodermic amidst the fire in her back and arm.

“It’s the damnedest thing. Her sister has no sense of pain,” she’d heard the doctor’s voice boom as she began to slip into unconsciousness.

“It hurts,” she whimpered, stirring fretfully in her bed.

Monsters lurked in the fever dream, lizards of gray-green on two legs, lumbering slowly after her with a ponderous determination as, utterly terrified, she fled down echoing corridors.

“Stop!” The voice was low and sibilant, the English distorted by a tongue not made to form the words.

She hesitated, every muscle still poised for flight, staring back to where her pursuers waited for her.

“Tell us where they are hiding,” one demanded.

An invisible hand closed viciously on Carrie’s wrist, non-retractable claws pressing into her flesh. She jerked free, her other hand pressed to her mouth as the scene blurred.

“Valtegans,” she moaned, drops of blood pearling on her wrist and dropping to the coverlet.

She dreamed again of standing shivering in her underwear as she stowed her clothes in the small locker beside the coffin-shaped sleep pod, the chill caused by more than the lack of heating in the cryo level. Then lying down on the form-shaped interior, waiting for the medic to come and attach her to the life-support and cryogenic systems.

Carrie glanced at her brother Richard before turning to grin nervously at Elise through the clear perspex sides as sensor pads were attached. Their parents hovered at the ends of their pods, anxiously waiting until all three children were safely asleep.

She jumped as a hand touched her.

“Don’t worry. It’s only a sedative to help you relax,” smiled the crew woman, fixing the small adhesive patch to her arm. “Next thing you know, you’ll be waking up in orbit around our new home.”

“Just to remind you, the system is automatic so there is very little you have to do. If you turn your head to the right, you’ll see it’s printed on the plaque there.”

“The main thing to remember when you wake up is to press that red button to release the pod cover, then take off the sensors. After that, you’ll hear the instructions on the speakers.”

Already she could barely make out the woman’s voice.

“Sleep soundly, children. I love you,” was the last thing she heard her mother say.

The cover slid into place over her and she began to drift gently, imagining herself surrounded by a soft, warm, gray mist.

Suddenly she was jolted to awareness by the sting of the hypo on her sister’s arm. The drug swept through Carrie’s system, burning its way along her nerves, setting them on fire until her whole body was convulsed with spasms. She tried to fight it, to open her eyes, but all she could see were colors swirling around her until her stomach was heaving with vertigo. She felt herself slipping . . . slipping . . .

“Mother!” she had screamed, her mind and body trapped in the slow time cold hell of cryogenics, unable to do anything as she felt at last her mother’s blind terror at waking too soon.

She could sense her beating futilely at the walls of the cryo pod, trapped like a butterfly transfixed by a pin as she tried desperately to activate the release mechanisms that were locked in stasis.

Her mother’s movements quickly grew sluggish, finally stopping as the limited air supply in the pod ran out.

“Mother! Don’t leave me!” Carrie screamed, desperately fighting the effects of the drug that this time dragged her down into darkness.

Carrie felt herself pushed and pulled in every direction. Scaled faces loomed at her out of the dim light, clawed hands grasped at her, pawed at her, making her flesh recoil from their sharp, cool touch. She stumbled against bodies that thrust her away to fall to the ground, only to be dragged to her feet again. Noise surrounded her, loud, sibilant voices shouting. Like the images, the sounds faded in and out with her consciousness.

“We have to fight them, Carrie. I can’t do it passively like Dad. I’m leaving to join the guerrillas. The Valtegans are soldiers, not civilians, and they’re Alien. We can’t appeal to their better nature because they haven’t got one.”

“I’m leaving now, tonight, for Geshader.”

“Geshader? But…”

“Don’t try to change my mind, Carrie,” Elise warned quickly, “it’s made up. As one of the women in their pleasure city, I can get close to the officers, a thing no man can do. And once I’m with them, I’m sure I can get access to all sorts of useful information.”

“But to become one of the prostitutes… and with them! How could you?”

Elise gave her a wry grin. “Come off it, Carrie. It’s the oldest profession going, and the women from Geshader that I’ve talked to say it isn’t that bad.”

“It isn’t as if we can’t keep in touch. There’s our link after all.”

“You just take care, for both our sakes!”

“Do you mind too much? You know the risks we face, don’t you?”

“I know,” Carrie nodded, “but you’re the one taking the real risks. I’ll cope somehow. Jack Reynolds is used to us by now.”

“At least you didn’t pick up much when I was with that lad from Seaport this spring,” her twin grinned, “so with any luck you’ll be spared my ‘working experiences.'”

Her voice faded, leaving only the impression of the grin behind.

“It’s the only way I could fight them, Carrie.”

Figures jostled her again, dark red light on pallid skins, rough claws digging into her arms, drawing blood. Again, every nerve flared with excruciating pain and she tried to arch her body away from it, but she only succeeded in cracking her head against the wall. Stunned, she heard her own scream as if from far away as her hands tried to grasp for something concrete anything to help her hold onto reality. She was aware of a sudden warmth running down her right arm. Blood.

Shock and fear brought her briefly out of her twin’s world of pain. Blood. Dear God, there had never been blood before!

Footsteps pounded along the landing and her door burst open. Dimly she saw her father and brother standing there, their faces blanching when they saw the state she was in.

She lifted her head up from the floor and tried to disentangle herself from her bedding but only succeeded in slipping in her own blood.

“They’ve got Elise,” she said, her voice made blurry by drugs and pain.

While the pain continued, she knew that Elise was still alive. When that stopped, her sister would probably be dead. Carrie began to whimper again, a low-pitched animal sound. Pain flickered through her body, but it no longer seemed to burn so fiercely. She lay there unthinking for the moment, thankful for the brief respite, while knowing the worst was not yet over.

Two days before, the Valtegans had seized Elise; two days and nights of torment for Carrie. Her one comfort had been the knowledge that nothing they could do would make her sister reveal anything about the Terrans’ resistance movement on Keiss.

Elise was not particularly brave, it was more that she possessed no sense of pain. Born the stronger of the two, she had never had to suffer the hurts of childhood. Instead, in some strange way, it was Carrie who had suffered the agonies of her twin’s broken arm, or the fever of some illness. As in the past, Carrie was the one suffering now.

She could feel Elise, a faint but unmistakable presence in the depths of her mind.

If I want to survive, I must remain detached, Carrie thought. Blank. I must keep my mind blank.

Slowly, she tried to edge out the consciousness that was Elise, pushing her sister down from the surface of her own thoughts. The response was immediate. Waves of fear began spreading upward, catching her unaware and pulling her back into that other life.

She cried out, flinging herself from side to side in an effort to escape the welter of pain that began to course through her fever-wracked body. Would they never stop questioning Elise?

Strong hands grasped her, pressing her down, but still she thrashed from side to side.

“My God, she’s got some strength!”

“I’m afraid we might lose her, Peter. Even if she doesn’t go catatonic as she did after the death of her mother, her system can’t take much more.”

The voice sounded faint and far away, receding farther until all the reality she knew was the awful shriek that echoed inside her head.

Abruptly, it stopped, and the terrible emptiness rushed in. That part of her mind where Elise lived was a void. There was no more pain or fear, just emptiness. Total panic overwhelmed her and she began to scream.

“She’s dead! Elise is dead!”

All reason left her. She ignored the feelings of disintegration as mentally she stretched herself thinly in every direction, searching frantically for something to hold on to. Never since the moment of her birth had her mind been hers alone. Elise had always been there. Racing through every part of her mind, she checked over and over again, unable to believe her sister was gone, but there was nothing. Not a trace remained.

She opened her mouth to scream her disbelief then stopped in astonishment. Like a faint glow from a dying candle, she could feel something in the corner of her mind. She reached for it, nursing it carefully, hardly daring to hope, but the thoughts were totally alien to her. Mentally she drew back, feeling the blind terror surging in once more, but the new personality clung to her, refusing to be ignored. Against her will, she felt herself being held and examined. In return, she could sense its surprise at the contact.

As if it understood her fears and terror, it began to reassure her, sending only thoughts of comfort and friendship.

Exhausted, Carrie began to relax, letting a sweet lassitude steal over her. Within moments she was asleep.


A shaft of sunlight pierced the dirty broken window and crept along the rubble-strewn floor until it reached him.

In the sunbeam, motes of pollen and dust flickered and danced along its length. At first, from the depths of sleep, he was only aware of a vague discomfort around his face. This feeling grew until finally, brought to the threshold of wakefulness, he sneezed violently. Now fully aroused, he breathed deeply and began to stretch every muscle, trying to rid himself of the stiffness and tension caused by several days of living rough. He winced, almost crying out with pain as he tried to move his wounded leg.

Extending his fingers, he began to explore the injured flank. Several pieces of metal from the explosion had ploughed a deep furrow in his flesh, and the surrounding skin was angry and swollen. Gingerly he touched it, feeling the heat of the swelling. He knew the wound needed to be properly cleaned because despite his ministrations he could see bits of black fur sticking out of the congealed blood. He was also fairly certain that there was some metal still lodged within, but there was nothing he could do about it. Without anything to use as a bandage, he dare not even attempt to clean away the dried blood. At least it gave him some protection against any new infection.

Clenching his teeth, he sat up and began to work the leg gently, praying that the wound would not start to bleed again. Moving it loosened the stiff muscles and soon he was ready to try standing. He decided to play it safe and went down into a four-legged stance first, cautiously easing his hindquarters off the ground. The leg held, and he took a few tentative steps. Each one was agony, but after persevering for several minutes the pain became bearable. Light-headed and panting, he sank to the ground again. There was no way that he could travel upright, but perhaps that was all to the good.

There were several indigenous feline species on this planet and, moving four-legged like them, he was less likely to attract any undue attention. Normally he would make better speed that way, but with his wounded leg, speed was out of the question: it was endurance that counted now. He had to reach the girl before the fever took hold of him. Surely she would help him now that she had recovered.

His stomach began to rumble emptily, reminding him of more immediate problems. He needed to find food. For the past four days he had stayed in the ruined hut, hiding from the Aliens who had shot down his craft. Only five of them had survived the crash and subsequent explosion. Five out of a crew of eight!

He sighed and turned his mind back to the problem of food, trying to remember all that he had been taught about living off the land. A wise person, his father: he tried to see that his son was prepared for the worst contingencies of life.

By birthright you are a hunter, never forget that. Have pride in yourself and that fact. Only in extreme emergency, when you are too weak to hunt, should you beg or scavenge for food. No one should have to rely on charity or theft to keep alive. Either you survive on your own hunting, or you work for your food. Never use your Talent; it would be a misuse of a sacred gift.

Sound principles, but not very useful at the present time. Even if he had wanted to use his Talent, there had been no opportunity to do so. It was autumn here, a mild one so far, with plenty of berries and nuts for the wild creatures. Consequently they were taking no risks for stray tidbits. When he had been free of his vigil over the girl for any length of time the only food he had been able to find had been the occasional birds’ eggs and edible berries that were readily available.

Squinting at the gleaming yellow orb in the sky, he determined it was not far past dawn. Slowly he got to his feet and limped carefully through the jumble of broken glass, earthenware, and bricks to the doorway of the cottage. Once outside, the air was chilly despite the bright sunshine. He shivered slightly, sweeping the surrounding area with his gaze, searching not only for any sign of the Aliens but also for the slightest movement of any animals suitable for breakfast.

Today the landscape looked even more dismal. The grass was low and sparse, growing in clumps among the springy heather. The moorland stretched for kilometers in every direction, offering him no cover at all. Overhead, the sky was a sharp blue, with the clarity that only a cold day can give. Clouds were gathering in the north, clouds dark with snow.

There was no real food in this area. What might live there in the warmer seasons had either burrowed deep into the ground for winter or moved down to the gentler lowlands. Kusac was faced with a choice. He needed food, water, and treatment. To get those, he had to reach a settlement in the foothills. If he left the comparative safety of the hut, he would have to run the risk of being caught in a blizzard. The alternative was to stay there and pray that he could cope with his septic leg and imminent fever. In his weakened condition, neither option offered a high rate of survival.

When none of the choices open to you offers more than extinction, choose the one that prolongs life the most. Always allow the unexpected time to intervene.

Well, nothing could happen here, so, trusting his telepathic link with the girl, he headed east. Perhaps he might come across some animal out for a short airing, or dig for some unappetizing but nourishing grubs.

He loped off across the moors, eyes and ears alert for any sign of danger or food, however unlikely the prospect. The heather was not an easy surface on which to walk; at one moment stiff, the next yielding, so that despite his cautious tread, he was often sent reeling as his feet caught in the hidden webs of branches. Every now and then he would glance at the sky, checking to see how much of it had been obscured by dark clouds.

Gradually the terrain began to change. Instead of being completely flat, the ground now had the remains of runnels cut into it, running in the opposite direction to the one Kusac was taking. The sharp branches of heather began claiming their toll; his legs were oozing small drops of blood from many minor cuts and scratches, and he had limped the last few hundred meters on only three legs.

Staggering to a halt, he squatted on his haunches and peered at the sky. It was now completely overcast and he could feel snow in the air. Things were not going well. At this rate, all his energy would be spent just trying to reach the settlement, and he could not be sure that he would make it.

Suddenly he heard a distant roaring coming rapidly in his direction. He flung himself into a ditch, crouching low until the groundcar had gone, its cushion of air buffeting him. Kusac crawled out, his breathing ragged as he sat panting for several moments before forcing himself to continue.

If you wish to remain free, be circumspect in all you do. Knowledge gives you power: let none have knowledge of you and what you can do, his father’s voice reminded him.

We were circumspect, thought Kusac, but our maneuver- ability and speed were just not enough. If we had been given a battleship instead of a light patrol craft, I would not be making this journey, and our people would now know we had found the Others.

After your life, your freedom and pride are your most precious possessions, the voice continued, as Kusac wearily lifted one foot after the other. What other wise tenets will he have to impart? he wondered miserably as the first light flakes of snow began to fall.

I must keep on, he thought. There is no shelter here. If I am caught in a snowstorm now, I shall die.

This knowledge urged him on, making him force the injured leg to keep moving. Around him the snowflakes fluttered faster, landing on his nose and eyelashes. He darted his tongue out briefly to capture the moisture, but his mouth still felt thick and swollen with thirst.

“One snowflake won’t do much good,” he muttered to himself. “Soon there will be enough to drink.”

The snow was heavier now, being puffed into his face as a wind sprang up. Within a few minutes he was in the midst of a blizzard, slipping and slithering on the mushy ground and blinded by the driving snow. His foot caught on a heather root, felling him with unexpected force and making him yowl with pain as he landed on his wounded side.

He lay there for several minutes, too weak to get up, until he realized that enough snow had collected for him to quench his thirst. Scrabbling frantically with his hands, he began to lap up clumps of snow from where he lay.

The warning voice spoke again. Too much cold water when you are suffering from thirst, can kill as easily as the thirst itself.

Kusac stopped and picked himself up. Though still thirsty, he knew he could take no more at present, and he had revived himself enough to press on. He lurched to his feet. Pain was a thing of the past, he was only aware of feeling curiously disembodied. Though he was thoroughly soaked by this time, his wet fur clinging sleekly to his skin, he was totally unaware of it and the fact that he was shivering violently.

Time and time again, the force of the wind flattened him to the ground. Each time it was that bit harder to get up.

Survival depends on the will to survive, he heard his father say.

“I’ve plenty of will, just not enough strength,” growled Kusac, doggedly dragging one foot after the other through the deepening snow.

A shape loomed grayly up ahead of him, but his eyes were on the ground and he failed to see it. Blindly, he walked straight into the object, giving himself such a crack on the head that he was almost knocked unconscious. Lying there with his senses spinning, it was some time before he understood that it was a tree he had struck. Furthermore, that some recent storm had uprooted it, leaving a cavity deep enough for him to curl up in, sheltered from the snow. He squirmed and wriggled, forcing himself into the opening. It was cramped, but at least it was dry. Clawing and scratching, he deepened the hole slightly, using the loose earth to block up the opening until there was only enough space left for an adequate supply of air to enter. The exercise in the close confines of his lair had warmed him up sufficiently to stop the worst of his shivering. The pain in his leg had returned, but exhaustion was too great for that to keep him from a sleep which was nearer a coma.

He awoke many hours later, stiff, cold, and with a head pounded by a thousand angry demons. His limbs ached in every joint as he tried to pull himself toward the entrance. Through the tiny gap he had left, he could see that although it had stopped snowing, the sky remained an ominous slate color.

Shivering, he pushed back his blockade and crawled out into the snow. The light was fading and he judged it to be close to night. Tentatively he probed the depth of the icy white mass with his good leg: it was not going to be easy, the drifts were almost up to his knees. Sighing, he crouched carefully down onto the ground. Perhaps the snow would numb the wound’s fire. He was reluctant to look at it for fear of what he might see.

Your Talent will be useful to you in many different ways, so start experimenting with it. No one knows the range of another’s Talent, its limits may only be the ones set by you. Always keep testing your capabilities.

Father? thought Kusac incredulously. No. It can’t be him, he’s too far away to reach me. I’m just imagining things. “Still,” he said aloud, “it isn’t a bad idea. I have never tried using my Talent to control pain.”

He shuffled his feet in the snow, trying to balance comfortably on all fours. Taking a few deep breaths and stilling his mind, he reached, trying to locate the pain centers in his brain. Several odd sensations coursed through him as he searched, but when all the myriad aches began to slowly fade, he knew he had found the right area. How blessed was that release! Until that moment, he had not realized how much he had been suffering. He opened his eyes and staggered slightly before regaining his balance.

“I might just make the settlement now,” he murmured, starting to plod onward, his legs dragging furrows behind him.

Try to avoid extremes in all things. Extreme eating or drinking can kill you just as effectively as extreme weather. Snow will cling to your body, increasing its weight, making you sweat. Then you will lose body heat. Desiring to rest, your body will force you to continue. Either way, you will soon die unless someone aids you, his father’s voice droned pedantically.

Great, thought Kusac wryly. So what do I do about it? Why can’t you give me some more sensible advice? I haven’t got the time to chat!

He was suddenly jarred back to reality as his feet scrabbled for a hold before sliding from under him. He was catapulted downhill, tumbling faster and faster, the sky and snow whizzing about him until he was brought to an abrupt and sickening halt by a large concrete slab projecting upright out of the snow.

Kusac groaned and lay slumped where he had come to rest. He was losing control; pain waves began to swamp him. Grimly, he reached out again, strengthening his hold until the pain receded once more. Something wet and sticky was running into his eyes. Putting his hand up, he brought it down covered with blood.

Ice will stop a wound from bleeding, came the cool reminder, and Kusac obediently laid his head on the freezing ground that was at once his enemy and his friend.

Despite the nausea that rippled through him, he had to rise eventually. Although he could not feel it, he knew that the snow was draining him of all warmth. The ground beside the concrete slab felt harder and firmer than that over which he had been traveling. His vision still blurred, he peered at it. There was writing.

Lifting his head, he saw that this flatter ground wove downhill to a cluster of faint lights in the valley below. He was on the road to the settlement.

Vartra be praised, he thought, lurching away from the stone and onto the roadway. Great was the danger of being seen, but greater still was a repetition of his fall.

Now the going was easier. Instead of having to pick his way across unseen and uneven ground, he knew that he had a continuous flat surface beneath him. The downhill slope, though fairly steep, was actually an advantage. He could intermix sliding cautiously with walking, thus making better headway.

Use the terrain to your advantage. Make it work for you, not against you. When walking on sand, your feet will not sink into the surface if you are on the damp area near the water’s edge. Rocky ground? Then jump from rock to rock. Water? Then look for stones above the surface or just under it. Don’t give yourself extra trouble. Accept the land’s conditions.

“Yes, Father,” said Kusac dryly. He knew all about these things, had since early childhood. Why did his father keep lecturing him on the obvious?

Behind him he heard the mechanical screeching and whining of another groundcar. Instantly he bunched his muscles and leapt for the cover of the bushes growing at the roadside, trying to stifle his cry of pain at the sudden movement. The car passed and he emerged again to continue his painful slithering walk.

The settlement was a collection of some twenty or so houses facing one another across a broad roadway. Behind each was a fairly large area of cultivated ground. As yet he had no idea which house he wanted: the girl’s mind had been in too much turmoil for him to find the information he required. It had been difficult maintaining contact with her at all throughout his journey. The link was strong enough for him to trace her to the settlement, but not for him to pinpoint her home. He had to call her to him.

Pushing his way into one of the gardens, he spotted a small wooden hut far enough away from the house for him to investigate without being seen. He limped over and, leaning against the door, pulled himself upright. With fingers so numb he could hardly move them, he pulled at the restraining bolt. It slid back with a bang. Quickly he slipped inside, pulling the door closed and securing the latch. It was a toolshed, smelling of dried onions, rows of them hung from hooks set into the wall. In the far corner he could see a pile of rags and a large wooden box. Gratefully he limped across and sat down. On closer inspection the rags turned out to be sacks woven from thick vegetable fibers.

He could feel the pain beginning to steal back into his body. Already his head was aching with the effort of trying to maintain his control. Time was running out quickly now.

Rolling a couple of sacks into a wad, he placed it under his injured leg, propping it up slightly. Pulling some more free, he wrapped them round his shoulders to cushion his back against the crate. He also figured out that the tantalizingly familiar odor he had been smelling for the last few minutes originated from the box. Easing himself up slightly, he thrust his hand inside, grasping hold of one of the round, hard objects it contained. An apple! Ravenously he bit into it, aware as he did so how dry his mouth had become.

His eyes refused to stay open any longer and reluctantly he decided not to have a fourth apple. This was the part he was dreading. To be sure of reaching the girl, he had to utilize all his Talent, relinquishing his control over the pain. He was exhausted beyond endurance and knew he could not have made it this far without the control. Whether or not he could remain conscious long enough to make contact he had no idea, but he had to try now. That he’d managed to make it this far was a miracle. He’d come within a whisker of being found by those Alien soldiers. Why they hadn’t seen him, he’d never know.

Shutting his eyes, he lay down, making sure that he was well covered. Cautiously, he allowed his mind to relax, trying not to shock himself into unconsciousness with the influx of pain. He was pleasantly surprised: it was not as awful as he had imagined. Oh, there were aches in every limb and joint and he could hardly move his pounding head, but there was no pain at all from his leg. That was bad.

My leg must be worse than I thought. He pressed a hand to his face, feeling how hot he was. Almost immediately he started to shudder again.

The fever, he thought. No wonder I was so thirsty! I must reach the girl. Hurriedly he strengthened the link between them, making it narrower until he knew that he had penetrated her mind. Her thoughts were flooded with confused images slowly meandering through her subconscious and he had almost begun to panic when he realized she was deeply asleep. A drug induced sleep, if her slow alpha rhythms were anything to go by. There was no way of reaching her until she awoke. Too utterly spent to even curse fate, he withdrew, leaving her to sleep on in peace.

Alien Species by on

Sketches by Mike Gilbert and Phil Eggerding.

The Sholans

They are the felinoid species who feature predominantly in my novels. They are in the process of evolving away from four-legged locomotion and though definitely upright, prefer to hunt on all fours. They are my favorite species in the Alliance. I chose to write about felines because I asked myself “What if we met aliens who resembled animals on Earth?” Could we see past the appearance of an animal to the people beneath, or would prejudice get in the way?

Rather than just copy from one of the many feline communities on Earth, I’ve given a lot of thought to their evolution as a species. Why did they go into space; what have they to offer in an interplanetary market-place in the way of skills and trade goods; what makes them different from us? I also looked at ways for an evolved sentient species to cope with the problem that comes from having aggressive young males within a community that is matriarchal by nature.

The Sumaan

These are reptilians six feet tall with long tails and long, mobile necks. Because they come from a heavier gravity world than the other three species, the Chemerians don’t see them as a threat to the lighter gravity worlds they inhabit. They are the mercenaries of the Alliance and are known as much for their dependability as their tendency toward heavy-handedness when policing activities within the Alliance. If it’s known the Sumaan are going to be involved in a dispute, everyone thinks twice before continuing!

The Keissians

The Human inhabitants of Earth’s first colony who were invaded by the Valtegans. The Keissians may well become the first Human members of the Alliance. Meanwhile, the Terrans from Earth are likely to remain junior members for some time.

The Sholan Alliance has several member species who till now have not been physically seen. Thanks to Mike Gilbert, who does such wonderful work with my maps, I have a series of sketches of them.


The Chemerians

They are an aboreal, somewhat paranoid species. They’re small in stature with large ears and eyes. Being light gravity worlders with feet equipped for gripping branches, they need assisted locomotion when off their world. From their position of paranoia, they see the Sholans as potential rivals for the worlds they wish to exploit and colonise. In fact, when they first met three hundred years ago, a series of wars erupted between the two species. This lasted some fifty or so years. So when they met the Sumaan two hundred years ago, they hired them as mercenaries and personal bodyguards for those of their species brave enough to venture into space. They also funded the production of Sumaan craft or leased Chemerian vessels to them – at vast profit to themselves, of course – and brought them into space to counter the presence of the Sholans.

The Touibans

They are about four feet tall and travel in a swarm of six males. They talk in high, trilling voices as well as communicating by scents. They live at a faster rate than us so watching them move tends to give one motion sickness. They love bright, garish colours and adorn themselves with an abundance of gold jewellery. I am very fond of them.


The Cabbarans

A new species, glimpsed briefly in RAZOR’S EDGE, the Cabbarans are quadrupedal vegetarians with a knack for Jump navigation and Cabbaraforming, rather than terraforming, inhabited worlds with an eco problem of the nature that Jalna has. As navigators they work in septs of four with the U’Churians, to whom they become equally indentured as family. Both sides view the working relationship very seriously. They identify their Family, Rank and Profession by the colored tattoos on their bodies. The top lip is long, almost prehensile, they have forward facing eyes, pale, sandy colured body hair with a stiff crest of dark hair running the length of the head and down the spine and across the shoulders and flanks. And they can be bribed with candy – by family members!


The Valtegans

And of course, we have for the first time, the Valtegans. This is actually General Kezule, but the priest J’koshuk and the crew of M’ezozakk’s ship would have all looked like this.

Those on M’zull would not have the head crest.


Last but not least are the mysterious insectoid TeLaxaudin.

They are the tech wizards of the galaxy, with an arsenal of very dangerous weapons concealed in rings, baracelets and other body ornaments. They are the ones who created the artificial intelligence known as UNITY and the web through which they can talk telepathically with the Cabbarans – and members of the Sholan Alliance.



Romas Kukalis’ excellent cover for RAZOR’S EDGE shows Kusac, Kaid and T’Chebbi disguised as black long-pelted U’Churians, and in the background you have the Sumaan.

For the new book, Chris Moore’s cover for CIRCLE’S END shows a young Shaidan getting a blood sample taken by Kuvaa the Cabbaran.

Shades of Gray Excerpt by on


The Tushuu, Zhal-Arema, Month of Love 2nd day (March)

A warning tone, followed by a burst of complex trilling speech through the conference suite’s comm, took Kaid’s attention away from the scaled holo image of the City of Light they were studying.

Toueesut, leader of the Touibans quartered on Kusac’s estate, frowned, his mobile eyebrows meeting over his deep set eyes in a single bushy line. He replied in what for him was a terse, and short, burst of the same sing-song language before looking around them, his expression grim.

“We must go. The Prime Prince and the children are causing a serious incident on the emergency bridge.”

The Sholan’s ears flicked back into invisibility. “What?” Kaid asked incredulously as he got hurriedly to his feet. “There must be some mistake.”

“None. We must go there instantly and resolve it.”

“What’s he doing there in the first place?” demanded Carrie, the only Human present, as she followed them out into the corridor. “And why has he taken the cubs with him? How did he even know where it was?”

“We will have to be asking him, Carrie,” said the small alien, looking up at her. “It seems they have been using their mental powers on our soldiers to gain access, and to guard themselves from interference.”

“I’ll be tanning some hides tonight,” said Garras grimly, pacing along beside them as the other Sholans followed. “A warship is no place for childish pranks; Prince Zsurtul should know this. And where’s youngling, Valden? And Tanjo? He’s their tutor, they should be with him!”

“I sent Tanjo to rest. He was up half the night with the cubs because they ate too many cookies,” said Carrie. “I should have known better than to leave Valden in charge of them!”

Toueesut stopped at an elevator. “This is no prank. Prince Zsurtul has routed communications there from the main bridge and is transmitting a message even as we speak.”

Kaid could feel every hair across his shoulders and down his spine start to prickle in dread as his ears, which had raised themselves to their usual upright position, sank again.

“I can’t reach any of them mentally,” said Carrie as the elevator door slid open. “They’ve totally blanked the area. It’s as if there were psi dampers there.”

“Once a Valtegan, always a Valtegan,” muttered Rezac as they piled in. “He’s reverting to type now he’s their Emperor elect.”

“No!” said Carrie sharply. “He’s a Prime, you know that. There has to be a rational explanation for this.”

“By Vartra’s bones, there had better be,” swore Kaid as they surged downward into the bowels of the Touiban battleship. His blood ran cold at the thought that they’d been harboring a snake in their midst all these months.

He hasn’t turned on us, Tallinu, you know he hasn’t, Carrie sent to Kaid as she rested her hand reassuringly on his arm.

I hope you’re right, because if he and they combined can bring the Tooshu to her knees like this, the Gods alone know how we’re going to stop them!

Armed and armored Touibans, their mustaches bristling, waited to escort them past the obviously hastily erected force field bunkers at every corridor junction and iris. As they walked, Toueesut conversed rapidly in his trilling voice with their escort. They rounded a corner and came face to face with a group of four unarmored Touibans standing with weapons drawn. Their escort halted.

“They’ll let no one pass beyond here,” said Toueesut.

“This is ridiculous,” said Garras angrily. “How dare that young krolla involve our cubs like this!” As he started forward, Carrie grabbed his arm and held him back.

“There has to be a good reason for this because he’s involved the cubs,” she said, looking at them all one by one. “Before anyone gets hurt, we have to think this through.”

“You may enter,” said a voice from behind her in very badly pronounced Sholan.

Swinging round, she faced the four impassive Touibans. “Just me?” They’re being mentally controlled, she sent to the others.

“And Kaid.”

“Let these people go immediately,” said Kaid, tail lashing from side to side in a show of anger. “What you’re doing is wrong.”

“Soon. We must finish this first,” said the Touiban, his face blank and emotionless. “No harm is intended to anyone.”

With a low rumble of anger, Kaid, followed by Carrie, approached them. “The rest of you stay where you are,” he said over his shoulder. “That’s an order.”

Walking like a broken toy, the small alien turned and lurched alongside them until they came to a reinforced airlock. They stepped through it into an area unlike any they’d been in so far. Gone were the bright colors on walls and flooring so loved by their hosts; instead everything was a dull uniform gray. Manual fire extinguishers, as well as those in the upper walls and ceilings, were set every few feet. The place was psychically dead as a morgue, and he didn’t like it.

“They’re here,” they heard the cub Gaylla’s voice say as their escort suddenly stopped in front of a doorway and barred their way. “Are you finished yet?”

“In a minute,” Zsurtul said quietly before lapsing into a torrent of Valtegan.

Straining his ears forward, Kaid tried to make out what the Prince was saying.

Carrie shook her head helplessly when he looked at her. “It’s a different dialect, and he’s speaking too fast,” she whispered.

“I’m finished, you can release our guards and let the Lieges in now,” said Zsurtul. “Thank you for your help.”

Suddenly, the psychic null zone vanished and the guard beside them dropped his firearm and staggered against the wall.

Automatically Kaid reached out to catch him, murmuring a few comforting phrases before ordering him to rejoin his people. As he did, he sensed Zsurtul coming out of the bridge a few feet away, followed by Valden and all five of the young Sholan cubs.

“This had better be good,” Kaid snarled, letting his canines show, even as he watched the way the cubs formed a defensive circle around the young Prime, and that Zsurtul had aged almost overnight.

Valden was left facing them, his jaw set in a firm line of determination. “It’s not what you think,” he began.

“How the hell could you know what I’m thinking?” demanded Kaid.

“I asked to see the recording General Kezule sent of the usurper K’hedduk’s broadcast,” said Zsurtul. His eyes closed briefly before he continued. “When I saw the head of my father, and the others from the royal court that he’d killed, I remembered that before I left for Shola, he gave me the access codes for the Palace and the Fleet, in case . . .” He ground to a halt, his large green eyes blinking rapidly.

Against his side, Gaylla pressed herself closer to him, slipping her small furred hand into his where it hung loosely by his side.

“I had to act immediately,” he continued, his voice firming again. “Before K’hedduk got into the system and changed the codes. I salvaged enough to contact the M’zullians and tell them there had been delays in K’hedduk’s plan and not to send reinforcements for another six weeks.” His brow creased as he looked from Kaid to Carrie and back. “Six weeks will be long enough for us to retake the Palace, won’t it? Maybe I should have said two months.”

“Six weeks will be fine,” said Kaid weakly, feeling the bottom drop out of his world in shock.

“You didn’t tell them . . .” began Carrie.

Zsurtul gave her a pained look. “Carrie, I’m not a fool. I didn’t let them know who I was.”

Dhyshac wormed his way to the front of their little group. “You can see why we had to help him, Father. There was no time to argue with everyone about it. As it was, Zsurtul was just in time.”

Gathering his scattered wits, Kaid scowled at them all. “That doesn’t excuse the liberties you took. Manipulating another person’s mind is a criminal offense,” he said, deciding not to mince his words. “Valden, you know that, you should have stopped them. Our Psychic Talent gives us power, but it also gives us the need to use it responsibly, or face the consequences, and believe me, you will all face the consequences!”

“It was my idea,” said Gaylla, moving even closer to the Prince, if it were possible. “They won’t take my Talent away, will they?” Her eyes began to fill with tears. “I was very careful of my soldier. I only did it ‘cos I know it’s important to stop people being hurt.”

“Gaylla’s not to blame,” said Dhyshac, lifting his chin. “It was me who organized it. If anyone’s to be punished, it should be me.”

Kaid was hard pressed to keep his face straight as he watched the unconscious signs of his son’s anxiety — the ears lying flat against his head, and the nervous twitching of his tail — vying with his obvious attempts at bravery.

“I take full responsibility . . .” began Valden.

“Mine is the responsibility,” insisted Zsurtul, speaking over the top of the young male.

“I’ll take all that into consideration,” Kaid said roughly. “No one is going to have their Talent removed, but you all have some apologizing to do, and amends to make to the Touiban soldiers, not to mention to Toueesut and the Captain of the Tooshu!”

“A week helping out preparing vegetables in the kitchens is definitely in order,” said Carrie sternly, pointing in the direction they’d come. “Go there right now, after you’ve apologized!”

“Yes, Liegena,” the cubs mumbled, beginning to sidle abjectly past her.

Kaid kept his eyes on Zsurtul, gauging him carefully with his mind as well as his other senses, waiting to see what he’d do next, but the Prince remained silent, standing with his back straight, offering no excuses, and no more explanations. He met Kaid’s eyes, even though his normally sand-tinted green skin was paler than usual.

“Apart from buying us some much-needed time, what else were you able to achieve?” he asked quietly.

“I changed the main offworld comm frequency,” Zsurtul said. “The M’zullians and K’hedduk will be unable to reach each other on the old one. Their messages will come directly here for us to intercept.”

“Does that includes the fleet orbiting round K’oish’ik?”

Zsurtul shook his head. “No, I left that alone so as not to arouse suspicion, but I changed the codes so even if K’hedduk discovers them, he can’t access them. I could do nothing about the City or Palace defenses, he’d already changed those codes, but we do have control over the internal systems like power, water, and communications within the Palace.”

“We have?” Kaid began to smile. “Won’t K’hedduk suspect someone’s been tampering?”

“No. He’ll assume my father changed the codes before . . .” His voice broke on his final word.

“He’ll assume your father forgot to pass on the new codes,” Kaid finished for him.

“I should go and apologize now,” he said quietly. “It isn’t fair that the cubs should face the Touibans’ anger alone.”

Kaid stood aside for him to pass, calling out to him just before he rounded the corner.

“Next time, Prince Zsurtul, please have the courtesy to let us know what you plan to do beforehand. When you’re finished, I’ll expect you to join us in the conference room for a full debriefing. It’s time you became part of the planning team.”

“He did good, even if he went about it the wrong way,” said Carrie, putting her arm through Kaid’s as they began to walk back to Toueesut. “Six weeks! I can’t believe he managed to talk both sides into that!”

“He did do good,” Kaid agreed. “He’s not a child anymore. I have a feeling his mother has more Warrior caste ancestry in her than anyone reckoned for.”

“I think his father knew that. Why else would he want his son trained by us? If we can know our genetic match and form a Leska Link with them, who’s to know the Primes can’t tell theirs?”

“The Primes aren’t telepathic, Carrie.”

When she replied with a small grunt, he said again, “They aren’t telepathic.”

Toueesut came forward. “I think perhaps you may be wrong about the Prince. Sensing what was going on I was through the harmonics we use and to me it is obvious that he has sensitivity, perhaps even he is empathic like many of your Brothers and Sisters. Long have I been thinking this and now I feel I am right.”

“Empathic?” echoed Carrie. “That’s not possible . . . is it?”

“Who knows?” said Toueesut, spreading his calloused hands. “These Primes are the Intellectual caste, more intelligent than others, it is possible it may have developed over time. I will make peace with my Captain over this. A feeling I have the young Prince felt compelled to act now. Among us are a very few who have sensings of future events . . .” Toueesut shrugged expressively and left the rest unsaid.

“He’s lived with us, worked with us. If he had any psi abilities, surely we’d have sensed them by now,” said Carrie, her tone now doubtful

“Perhaps you’re right,” said Kaid. “We didn’t even guess about Toueesut and his people. Maybe whatever he has doesn’t work the same way our abilities do, perhaps it’s more like the Touiban’s. He did say he’d a bad feeling about returning home when he asked to stay on with us.”

“Well, there’s one way to find out. Test him,” said Carrie.

“No. He’s going through enough right now.”

“We need to know,” Carrie insisted.

“Ask the little ones,” suggested Toueesut as they all began to move down the corridor again. “If anyone knows, they will.”

Kij’ik, Command level Briefing room

“Is he purposely keeping me waiting?”

Kezule glanced away from the Brotherhood logo on his comm screen toward the black-pelted Sholan sprawled uncomfortably on the sofa on the other side of his office.

“No,” said Kusac, wincing visibly as he sat up. “Master Rhyaz doesn’t stay in his office all day, he’s usually out and about with the students. He is the leader of the Warrior side of our Order. They’ll have to page him for you. You do realize he was in charge of interrogating you when you were on Shola, don’t you?”

“I haven’t a problem with that. Maybe he’ll be conveniently unavailable,” grunted the Valtegan, checking the screen yet again. Already he wasn’t enjoying this novel experience of asking for help, but he intended to retain the initiative.

“He’ll answer you personally. Whatever else he is, Rhyaz is no moral coward.”

Something in the other’s tone made Kezule look back at him. There was obviously unfinished business between Kusac and this Brotherhood Leader.

“You should still be in the sick bay, or at least resting in your quarters,” he said abruptly, the skin around his eyes creasing as he frowned. “My wife Zayshul said Dzaou had sliced up your side and arms pretty well, and I know your injured leg took a pounding in that fight.”

“I’m fine,” Kusac replied, his mobile upright ears flicking in what Kezule recognized as mild annoyance. “Just beginning to stiffen up, that’s all. You know Dzaou was bucking my authority from the get go. Out fight was long overdue.”

Kezule grunted his disbelief and turned back to the comm just as the warning tone sounded for his incoming call. The screen changed to show a brown-pelted Sholan male dressed in a purple edged gray robe.

“General Kezule, I’m Commander Rhyaz, Guild Master of the Warriors in the Brotherhood of Vartra. My colleague L’Seuli, Leader of our Haven Outpost, said you’d be contacting me.”

“We’ve met,” said Kezule shortly, eyes narrowing as he remembered the male who’d been one of his more aggressive interrogators when he’d been a prisoner on Shola.

“So we have. You have a hard head, as I remember. I broke one of my fingers on it.”

“Did you now?” The corners of Kezule’s wide mouth twitched slightly in an involuntary smile. Kusac was right, Rhyaz was meeting him head-on, with no apologies. “Maybe there’s some justice in the universe after all,” he murmured sotto voce.

“I’m told this new emperor is K’hedduk, leader of the Directorate,” said Rhyaz, ignoring the comment.

“He’s also the younger brother of the M’zullian Emperor. It’s imperative he’s removed from the Throne of Light as soon as possible,” said Kezule, “before reinforcements arrive.”

“Surely he’s preempting his own ruler? Won’t that destabilize M’zull — and be to our advantage?” said Rhyaz blandly.

“I’m aware of his intercepted messages to his generals, Commander,” said Kezule. “We both know that by now there’s likely been a coup on M’zull. By taking the throne, K’hedduk has reunified two of the remaining three worlds — and he believes Ch’almuth is a ripe fruit waiting for him to pluck at his leisure. We must take back the Palace, and put Prince — Emperor Zsurtul,” he corrected himself, “on his rightful throne.”

Rhyaz glanced at some print-outs beside him. “That shouldn’t be too difficult, Kezule, looking at the data you sent us on the Palace. It isn’t that large, only about the size of Ranz, if you include the City around it. If we can get our destroyer in close enough . . .”

“The Palace cannot be destroyed,” Kezule interrupted. “Both it and the throne have a deeply religious significance to us. Unless he’s crowned on it, Zsurtul will never be accepted by the Primes as Emperor. Then there’s the civilian population . . . I want as little collateral damage as possible.”

He watched Rhyaz raise an eyeridge, but the Sholan Commander said nothing.

“We’re looking at a combined air and land assault, Rhyaz,” he continued, using the Brotherhood Warrior Leader’s name for the first time.

“That complicate matters. We need to get past the craft guarding your world, K’oish’ik. When we do, our ship does have drop capabilities, and ancillary fighters. I’ll contact Commander L’Seuli and we’ll draft a battle plan. You can liaise with him when he rendezvouses with you.”

“I think you misunderstand me, Commander.” Kezule forced himself to keep his voice soft. “While I’m willing to consider your suggestions, I’ll be leading this mission jointly with Captain Aldatan. Your warriors will be assisting us.”

Again Rhyaz raised his eye ridge. “Able though the Captain is, he’s hardly an appropriate choice. He lacks . . .”

“He knows my Primes,” interrupted Kezule. “He’s worked with them here for these past five months — they trust each other. With respect, they don’t know any other Sholans apart from him and his crew.”

The Sholan pursued his point. “Captain Aldatan lacks the necessary experience and seniority . . .”

“It’s not negotiable — if your Brotherhood wants first choice of more Prime technology,” he interrupted bluntly. “Frankly, I didn’t expect you to be so hypocritical, considering the circumstances surrounding Kusac’s departure for here.”

Rhyaz regarded him silently, but Kezule could see the traces of the other’s anger by the slight narrowing of his eyes, and in the way his ears flared fractionally. He hadn’t liked that — or expected it. Good, he might need the help Rhyaz could provide, but he’d be damned if he’d let him think he was taking over this mission.

“Very well,” Rhyaz agreed, his tone icy. “However, I can only speak for the Brotherhood, not for Shola, or the Alliance.”

“Understood. I need our Emperor elect brought here to my outpost, Kij’ik. He’ll be safe here with my family until we’ve retaken K’oish’ik.”

“That’s beyond my ability to do. We don’t have access to the Prince . . . Emperor Zsurtul.”

“Then I suggest you get it,” said Kezule sharply, leaning forward. “His place is with his people. He cannot be crowned anywhere but on K’oish’ik, I thought I made that clear.”

“It’s out of my hands, General,” said Rhyaz, his slight smile ironic. “The last I heard about him, your Emperor was staying on Captain Aldatan’s estate. It’s likely Governor Nesul has requested that he be relocated in secure quarters at the Palace.”

“If you believe I’ll tolerate him being held to ransom,” began Kezule, his crest rising in anger. . . .

“I don’t, and neither would we,” interrupted Rhyaz coldly. “In that unlikely event, I assure you, he’ll be liberated by our personnel.”

Kezule searched the Sholan face on the comm screen, then took a deep breath. “I hope you understand that Zsurtul is all that stands between me and a job I swore not to take. I left K’oish’ik for that reason,” he said softly. “Zsurtul is in no danger from me. I’ll only stay long enough to see him crowned and surrounded by trustworthy advisors, then I plan to return here to Kij’ik.”

“I believe you,” said Rhyaz, surprising him. “However, it may be necessary for you to remain with the young Emperor during the inevitable M’zullian crisis. As you no doubt know, all Primes are too light in color to be able to negotiate with the M’zullians. Only you have the same skin tones as them and can therefore be seen as an equal.”

Kezule frowned. He didn’t want to remain tied to the Court for a moment longer that it took to get Zsurtul onto the throne. “We’ll see,” he said abruptly. “If we didn’t need their bloodlines, I’d advise the Alliance to destroy M’zull and everyone on it.”

“Genocide isn’t an option, General,” said Rhyaz. “No matter how tempting, even if we had the means.”

Kezule grunted — he’d expected no other answer from the Sholan. They didn’t have the stomach for such drastic solutions.

“Tell him to send the MUTAC,” said Kusac suddenly, keeping his voice low enough so only Kezule could hear him.

Without batting an eye, Kezule said, “Send the MUTAC, Rhyaz. It’s essential to our plan.”

Rhyaz’ expression froze momentarily. “So Captain Aldatan is beside you,” he said softly. “Then he should have told you we considered it a failed experiment.”

“Nevertheless, send it,” repeated Kezule, keeping his eyes fixed on the Commander.

Rhyaz shrugged. “If you wish, though it will do you little good.”

“How long until your people arrive here?”

“Kaid Tallinu and his team should be with you in three days, Commander L’Seuli and our destroyer in six, since they have to come from out Haven outpost. As I said, as well as thirty fighters, it carries five hundred drop pods for our armored Brothers and Sisters acting as ground forces.”

“That should be more than enough. The Palace isn’t that large, and by our reckoning, K’hedduk has just under three hundred and fifty people capable of fighting. The City and the rest of K’oish’ik can be discounted — it’s in an advanced state of urban decay.”

Rhyaz gave him a measured look, and choosing his words with obvious care, said, “It would be a tragedy if the Intellectual caste was lost to your species’ gene pool, Kezule.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing on Kij’ik, with Captain Aldatan’s help,” said Kezule shortly, reaching out to disconnect the call. “I’ll see your Commander L’Seuli in six days.”

Kusac waited until Kezule leaned back in his chair before speaking. “The MUTAC is a multi-terrain attack carrier. It carries only a pilot, but has a very basic cargo area that would hold one injured person.”

“Rhyaz said it was a failed experiment.”

He spread his hands expressively, wondering what had prompted him to ask for it. “Depends on your point of view. It will look terrifying when it bounds into a battle.”


“It’s shaped like us, but walks — or runs — on all fours. It has jets on each leg and can be used in a HALO drop. Armaments are explosive and guided missiles, and a top mounted beam weapon. It’s capable of standing upright and using its clawed feet to pull down structures. All in all, it’s a useful piece of hardware, designed more for back up and inspiring terror than heavy fighting.”

“How many of these have you?” asked Kezule, obviously intensely interested.

“Only the one, it’s a Brotherhood prototype made when I was staying at Stronghold. It proved to be somewhat difficult to control with the levers and gears used to operate it.”

“Then why . . .”

“For the look of it, Kezule, and the thought that maybe, since we know Kaid is with the Touibans, they may be able to find a way to adapt it for us. Forget that for the moment, we can’t wait six days for Rhyaz to get here. K’hedduk’s been in power now for nearly two weeks. Every day that passes he’s digging himself in deeper.”

“I know, but we have no choice. We don’t have nearly enough people to mount an assault ourselves.”

“We can, with the right plan.”

“I’m calling a briefing in an hour, in the room across the corridor. We’ll discuss plans then,” said Kezule tiredly.

“You’ve met L’Seuli too,” said Kusac, getting stiffly to his feet.

Kezule glanced over at him again.

“During your captivity, he acted out the reasonable soldier routine when they thought you were cooperating,” Kusac elaborated. “And head of the Sholan Forces is General Raiban — she took you into custody at the edges of the desert when we brought you forward in time.”

A hiss of anger greeted his disclosure.

“You were an extremely high level captive then, Kezule,” he said with an almost feral grin of amusement.

“Stop trying to manipulate me, Kusac, you’ve made your point,” the Valtegan said. “I have no option but to ask for Sholan help.”

“The Brotherhood’s, yes. Shola’s — no. Don’t ask for military help. Call Shola, but ask for aid from the Alliance in rebuilding K’oish’ik. You’ll need it when you realize your social engineering program can only be realistically continued on your homeworld.”

“K’oish’ik isn’t my homeworld,” Kezule snapped. “I was hatched on an outpost world. Stop reading my mind, Kusac!”

“I’m not,” he said mildly, leaning against the sofa for support. His body ached now the analgesics Zayshul had given him after his fight with Dzaou were beginning to wear off. “It’s obvious Zsurtul needs more than just a city, no matter how holy, to sustain him and his people. That world needs rebuilding, and you have an excellent beginning here. You’ve known all along that at some point you’d have to leave here for a planet.”

“One day,” Kezule admitted grudgingly.

“Dare to be truly different from the rest of your caste, Kezule, and give your people a positive legacy,” said Kusac softly.

Kezule stared unblinkingly at him for the space of several heart beats before looking away. “Will I have to speak to this Raiban female when I call Shola?” he asked instead.

“No, you’ll be put through to one of the Governor’s aides, then to Nesul himself. General Raiban takes her orders from the ruling council of Shola and of the Alliance. We’re not ruled by the military, thank Vartra! I need to speak to my son now, Kezule. I’ll see you at the briefing in an hour,” he said, pushing himself upright and limping toward the door.

“Bring Lieutenant Banner with you,” Kezule called out after him as he stepped out into the corridor.

Kusac’s quarters

“We need to have a serious talk, Shaidan,” Kusac said, shivering slightly as he ushered his son into the lounge area of his quarters. He checked the thermostat, surprised to find it at the usual temperature: he hoped he wasn’t developing a fever. “Would you like a drink? A fruit juice or something hot?” he asked, before heading for the dispensing unit by the meal bar.

“A keffa, please,” the cub said, trotting over to the sofa and easy chairs. “Is something wrong, Father? I can’t sense your mind at all.”

“I’m just marshaling my thoughts,” he said, grabbing two mugs and sticking one on the dispenser pad. He programmed in a coffee for himself and a keffa for his son.

Behind his strong mental shielding, as he was now, he could only just sense Shaidan’s mind. “It’s not been easy for you, I know. From the beginning, you were thrust into the midst of an adult world. Just how much you’ve been aware of, I’m not completely sure, but it’s time you learned some of the truths and reasons behind what’s been happening around you.”

He found his son’s silence unnerving. Picking up the two mugs, he went over to join him.

Shaidan was sitting curled up in one of the easy chairs, his posture one of confusion and self protection. Kusac sighed. As usual, he wasn’t handling this well, he realized as he placed the mugs on the low table and took a seat on the sofa opposite him. He lowered his shielding slightly in an effort to get closer to his son.

Head now bowed, Shaidan seemed to shrink even further into the chair, his tail tip twitching erratically in obvious distress.

“You’re going to send me away as soon as they arrive, aren’t you?” the cub said finally, looking up, his eyes glinting with unshed tears.

“Absolutely not!” he said firmly, holding his hand out in invitation to the cub. “You’re my son, you’ll stay with me until I can take you home myself.”

Shaidan blinked furiously, obviously determined not to cry. “You promise you won’t make me go with strangers?”

“I swear it. Come here,” he urged, reaching his hand out further toward him, remembering that though his son was physically ten years old, he’d been ‘born’ less than a year ago as a result of the Directorate’s illegal genetic experiments. “I swear that while I still draw breath, you will never be sent to strangers.”

Shaidan slid off his chair and taking his father’s hand, allowed himself to be pulled up beside him on the sofa. “Then why are you so worried?” he asked.

“I’ve some difficult things to tell you,” Kusac said, bracing himself mentally as he tucked his arm around his son. “You’ve been told about how the Directorate created you, but they didn’t just steal genetic material from myself and . . . Carrie,” he began, wishing it wasn’t still so difficult to talk about her. “They also stole from Doctor Zayshul and combined it with ours to make you. As well as being a Human/Sholan hybrid like your sisters, you’re also a very little part Prime.”

“Why?” Shaidan asked after a small silence. “Why would they want me to be part Prime?”

“I don’t know,” he said, raising his hand to gently stroke his son’s head. “Don’t worry,” he reassured him. “It won’t make you look any different from how you do now. But like your hybrid genes, the Prime ones will be passed on to your own cubs one day. Doctor Zayshul is working on finding out how else it may affect you, and as soon as she knows, she’ll tell us.” He hesitated. “There’s something else you should know . . .”

“About you and the Doctor?” asked Shaidan, burrowing closer to his side. “The other Sholan told me, but I could smell the scent marker anyway.”

“The Sholan in gray?” Kusac asked, trying to keep the sharpness out of his voice. “Do you know his name? Was it Vartra?” He’d long suspected it was Him, the Sholan Warrior Entity of Peace.

Shaidan nodded, snuggling even closer to him and wrapping an arm across his lap. “That’s what he said he was called. He said he couldn’t come to you any more, so he came to me instead.”

He filed the information away for later. Now he had to finish telling Shaidan about him and Zayshul. Within days, Kaid and Carrie would arrive and expect explanations he wasn’t yet ready to give. The only thing that could protect his son from all the gossip and allegations that would shortly be flying around, was the truth.

“What you don’t know is that the Doctor was forced, against her will, by the Directorate, to put the marker on me, and that it was impossible for either of us to ignore it.”

“Is that why you and she quarreled a lot?” Shaidan asked in a muffled voice. “Why did the General make you return when he knew about the marker?”

“He needed my help, Shaidan, that was more important to him than anything else.”

“He shouldn’t have made you come back by keeping me. That was wrong.”

“It was, but sometimes desperate people have to do desperate things when they need help,” he said, responding to the underlying anger in his son’s voice by gently touching the edges of his mind. “As for you being here, I wouldn’t have been able to send you home with the other cubs anyway, I’d have kept you with me so as we could get to know each other better. I want you to know that matters between the General and myself are now resolved, peacefully. We’re not exactly friends, but we are allies, on the same side now.”

He sensed the small growl of disagreement just before Shaidan uttered it.

“Pay close attention to me on this, Shaidan,” he said, putting his hand under his cub’s chin and lifting it so they were face to face. “You will be polite to him at all times, is that understood?”

“But he punished you — let you die!” the cub exclaimed, outraged, as he struggled to sit up.

“Shaidan! That’s enough,” he said firmly, tightening his arm round him. “You’ve no idea how sorry I am that because of your telepathic abilities, you’ve been exposed to adult matters, but it happened, and it’s over now. Trust me, you haven’t the experience yet to judge the rights and wrongs of the situation.”

The cub muttered something so low he couldn’t catch the words.

“Do understand me, Shaidan?” he demanded, taking hold of his son’s mutinous chin again.

“I understand you, Father,” the cub mumbled, giving up trying to pull away from him.

“It must end now, Shaidan. Kezule and I have learned to respect each other.” He smiled briefly, letting him go to ruffle the hair between his ears. “It may be a grudging respect, but it’s real. More, we trust each other now.”

“Then why did he let you die?” the cub blurted out.

Kusac sighed, and held Shaidan close again, pulling him onto his lap this time, wincing as the claw wounds down his side pulled. “He didn’t know that would happen. It was part of my healing process. No one realized how weak I actually was. I know you saved me, but Kezule did have the Doctor nearby on purpose. No one was expecting me to go into such a deep trance that I slipped into death.” He fell silent, resting his head on Shaidan’s.

“What was it like?”

“Unpleasant,” he said, wincing at the memory. “Full of regrets, not at all what I expected. When you reached for me, your fear triggered a response called a gestalt. That’s a special mental bond that exists only between Humans and Sholans who are mind linked. And because you and I were mentally linked, your cry for help was answered automatically by Carrie . . . and by your Triad father, Kaid. Ours is a special relationship,” he said, forcing the words out. “It only exists among the Humans and Sholans of our Clan. You’ll meet them soon . . . in three days to be exact.”

“Carrie — is she the Human?”

“Yes. She’s the one you saw in your memories, the hairless one like, but unlike, the Doctor.”

Shaidan pulled away from him and sat up, regarding him thoughtfully. “What about the Doctor?”

“That’s my private concern,” he said firmly, trying to meet his gaze steadily. “You will not to worry about that.”

The cub nodded slowly. “Can you show Carrie to me?” he asked, eyes lighting up with enthusiasm.

Opening his mouth to say no, he found himself saying, “Why not?” Leaning down, he touched his forehead to Shaidan’s and as he reached through his mental shields, began constructing the image of Carrie to project to him.

She was small, reaching barely to his shoulders — he could rest his chin on top of her head when he held her. Her long hair, the color of sunshine, was softer than any hair he’d ever touched before or since. Her fringe usually covered her eyebrows, and below them were dark brown eyes, ringed with amber — eyes that suddenly narrowed to the slitted pupils of a Sholan.

Sholan eyes, he heard his son think.

Yes. The night she defied her father to be with me, she changed herself briefly into a Sholan. When she changed back, her eyes remained like ours. Gods, remembering her consciously for the first time since he’d arrived here — what they’d shared, and lost together — hurt so much! And Kaid . . . It all came flooding back. Her scent, the feel of her skin, the sound of her voice, and his. Abruptly he pulled back from his son, shutting down the Link in fear the cub would pick that up too.

“You love them very much.”

“Yes,” he said, his voice low with emotion. “Yes, I do.”

He closed his eyes briefly, realizing he should have known they were so inextricably bound into his life that he’d be unable to separate them for his son. It was several minutes before he was able to continue.

“So among special people, Shaidan, you’re even more special. At the moment only the Doctor and we know about this. For now, I don’t want you to mention this to anyone. I intend to tell the others myself, in person.”

“Do we have to? I’d sooner no one else knew,” Shaidan said very quietly.

“Yes, we do. There’s nothing shameful about your heritage. Doctor Zayshul is a brave female — she’s saved my life several times, and at great risk to herself. Be proud of what as well as who you are. I am.”

“Are you?” Shaidan searched his father’s face, his voice as troubled as his expression.

“Of course I am! When I think of how you fought against the Directorate programming, and had the courage to Link to me when I had died . . . It was a shock when I first found out about you, but no more than it was for you, I’m sure,” he said, leaning forward to touch the tip of his tongue to his son’s nose in an intimate, loving gesture. “You are my son, I love you, and you belong with me and your family.”

He watched the tension drop away from Shaidan as the cub relaxed, finally, against him.

“I wasn’t brave at all, I was so scared of losing you, that’s why I did what Vartra told me to do.”

“True bravery is being scared and doing it anyway,” he said. “And I’m sorry but it’s going to be a bit longer before we can leave here and go home. Do you know about the new Emperor on the Prime world?”

“It’s all they’re talking and thinking about now.”

“Not all Valtegans are like the Primes. There are those called the M’zullians, who look like Kezule, but are extremely aggressive and warlike. The new Emperor is from their world, and Kezule and I have to lead his people, with help from the Sholan Brotherhood that my crew and I belong to, to retake the throne for the rightful Emperor, Prince Zsurtul. Don’t worry too much,” he said quickly, feeling Shaidan stiffen again. “It won’t be a long mission and you’ll be in no danger. You’ll stay here with Doctor Zayshul and the General’s daughter.”

“What if something happens to you?”

“It won’t.”

“You don’t know that.”

“No, I don’t, but it’s my job, Shaidan. It’s what we all do in the Brotherhood. Banner and I have to go to a briefing, so M’kou will be coming for you shortly. If it goes on too late, Jayza will collect you from the nursery and wait here with you until I return.”

“Have we time for a game of squares first?”

He checked his wrist comm. “Just about. Go fetch the pieces.”

They’d almost finished when M’kou, chief among Kezule’s many laboratory bred sons and daughters, arrived to take Shaidan down to join the other children.

M’kou picked his moment carefully, waiting until he and Shaidan were alone in the elevator before asking the question that had puzzled him for days.

“Shaidan, the day after your father was shot, when you and I were alone in the medic’s room, what happened?”

Startled, the cub looked up at him. “Excuse me?”

“I saw something . . . a dark shape, like a shadow, pick you up.”

Shaidan looked down at the floor. “I was scared for my father,” he mumbled. “I don’t remember.”

“Something, or someone, picked you up, I’m sure of it. You even spoke to it,” M’kou insisted gently.

“I don’t remember.” The words were more distinct this time.

“There must be something you remember,” said M’kou persuasively.

The cub looked up again. “I felt my father dying. I followed his mind, and helped him come back, all right? It scared me a lot, and I don’t want to remember it.” The childish voice cracked, betraying that fear only too audibly. “You’ll have to ask my father about the Sholan — he knows him.”

M’kou was instantly contrite, reaching out to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Shaidan. You can understand I had problems believing what I’d seen,” he said as the elevator drew to a halt.

“I don’t know what you saw, my mind was Linked with my father’s,” said Shaidan stubbornly.

As the door began to open, the cub wriggled out from under his grasp and darting through the gap, ran on ahead of him to the nursery.

M’kou followed more slowly, wondering if what he’d seen had been a manifestation of the mental link between the child and his father, or something very different. It seemed that he’d now have to ask Kusac.

Briefing room

M’kou had just finished his presentation of up to date Intel from the Prime system when suddenly, Kusac was aware of Kaid’s presence at the edges of his mental shielding — extremely distant, to be sure, but unmistakably him. He rose to his feet so abruptly that the chair fell over behind him, drawing everyone’s eyes to him.

“Is something wrong, Captain?” asked Kezule.

“No,” he said, ignoring the fallen chair and limping toward the exit. “I need some air, that’s all.” His hand was on the opening plate just as the buzz indicating an incoming transmission sounded. As the door slid shut behind him, he heard Shezhul telling the General it was Kaid Tallinu.

Giving Kusac’s retreating back a curious glance, Kezule said, “Route it through to here, please.” Had Kusac known the call was coming, he wondered, and if so, why had he left so abruptly? He’d no more time for speculation as he turned round to face the large comm screen behind him.

After carefully polite greetings had been exchanged, Kezule introduced him to those present, pausing briefly when he came to Banner. The tan colored Sholan on the screen merely nodded his recognition.

“I’m glad you called,” Kezule said. “We have another matter that will shortly need our attention. Ch’almuth, the remaining Valtegan world, has been raided by the M’zullians every five years for breeding stock. This time, they asked for our help. Since there is no way I have the resources needed to take on M’zull, I was reluctant to do anything that would result in further action against the peaceful Ch’almuthians. We ambushed their craft when it landed, overpowered the M’zullians on board, and rigging it to look like some natural catastrophe had affected them in jump space, sent the ship back.”

Kaid raised an appreciative eye ridge. “Very resourceful,” he murmured. “However, they will return.”

“Yes. By my reckoning we have four to five weeks before they do. By then, we need to either have found a more permanent solution, or send them back knowing that the cost of returning will be too great.”

“Has Ch’almuth no defenses of its own? It seems unlikely that even the Valtegan agricultural world wouldn’t be protected.”

“They have an orbital, and it was capable of defending them, but it’s no longer in working order. It’s beyond the ability of my engineers to repair, I’m afraid. We were able to patch up their weather control system so the ground control center could communicate with it again. They also now have access to two cruisers which we found berthed there. They are operational but badly needed repairs to the weapons’ systems. They’re lending them to us for the time being.”

While he’d been speaking, Kezule noticed Kaid glance off to the side, one ear swiveling in that direction before it flicked in agreement.

“We may be able to help you,” said Kaid as a hirsute, garish being joined him in the comm screen. “This is Toueesut, of the Touibans. We’re on one of their ships right now, the Couana. As you may know, they are the Alliance tech specialists.”

“Greetings, General Kezule. A pleasure it is to be meeting with you,” the small alien trilled in his sing song voice.

Fascinated, Kezule studied him. He’d never had the opportunity to see a Touiban before. Humanoid in appearance, they had only a passing likeness to the Human males he’d seen. Dark, almost unkempt hair sprouted from the being’s head above the deeply socketed eyes, and grew beneath the flanged nose. The mustache, for such it was, resembled a hairy caterpillar it was so mobile. What he could see of his jacket was an intense blue, but it was almost completely covered in gold braid and intricate swirls of embroidery. Round his neck he wore dozens of gold chains, and his hands, when they came into view, were equally laden with rings in the same metal. This was the species Kusac had mentioned. How had he known Kaid was with them?

He realized that the Touiban had been speaking again and tore his attention back to what the small alien was saying.

“I do apologize,” he began, feeling the blood rushing to his face in embarrassment before he could stop it.

“No matter, General, I was merely saying that we can be dispatching a small team to your Ch’almuth world to work on both the orbital and the ships,” said Toueesut with a large smile. “Hoping I am that my people are far more closely linked to yourself and the Prime world in the future.”

“Thank you,” he said. “The ships, however, arrived here a few hours ago.”

“Then we will be working on them here, it’s no matter to us. I will leave you now to continue your discussion with friend Kaid. When we arrive, we will be needing one or two of your people to come with us to Ch’almuth as we would not wish to earn their distrust by arriving without faces they are recognizing.”

Taken aback by the continuous flow of words, Kezule blinked and managed a weak “Thank you,” before Toueesut disappeared.

Kaid’s grin of amusement at his discomfort over the Touiban was almost feral in its enjoyment, but he ignored it.

“I wouldn’t worry, they affect everyone that way the first time,” the Sholan said, with a purr of amusement the whole room could hear.

“Their aid will be very welcome,” said Kezule stiffly. “The Ch’almuthians, if you can get their orbital working, are capable of defending themselves with it and the two cruisers. Their early warning system is working so they do have at least one week’s notice of any ships arriving in their system.”

“You got my message on what young Zsurtul has done, didn’t you?” Kaid asked abruptly, changing the topic.

“Yes. This six weeks grace will be extremely useful — though we can’t afford to wait that long before striking. Our new Emperor is more resourceful than I expected.” Kezule emphasized the word Emperor.

“Agreed. Have you any Intel on the City of Light defenses? Plans of the system would be extremely useful.”

“I’ll have them transmitted immediately,” said Kezule. “The mission will be led by myself and Captain Aldatan jointly. I suggest that you hold your own briefing, then call me tomorrow at the same time and we can have a joint discussion.”

“I don’t think . . .”

Kezule held up his hand. “I’ve already been through this with Commander Rhyaz. He’s agreed his people will work under myself and Captain Aldatan.”

Kaid hesitated briefly. “Talking of Kusac, I don’t see him there. I’d like to talk to him.”

“The Captain stepped out of the room just before you called,” said Kezule blandly. “He’s not available right now, but I will pass on your message and ask him to contact you as soon as he can.” Seeing the other’s frown, he added, “Lieutenant Banner is here and can pass the message on to your . . .” Here he hesitated, unsure of the complex relationships between Kusac, Kaid, and Carrie. “. . . partner,” he said finally.

“I’ll tell the Captain,” Banner confirmed. “You just missed him, sir, as the General said.”

Kaid gave a brief nod of acceptance. “I’d also like the opportunity to speak to the Lieutenant privately when we’re finished here.”

“Of course. M’kou will show him to our comms room when we’re done. Meanwhile, Commander Rhyaz informed me that our Prince has been staying on your estate. I need to talk to him.”

“That’s not possible, I’m afraid,” said Kaid regretfully. “We’re unable to contact our home from the Couana.”

“I need to talk to him,” insisted Kezule. “He is the Emperor elect, he must be crowned on the Throne of Light or his ascension is meaningless to the Primes. For that, he’ll have to leave Shola and come here. Whatever you think of me, I’m probably the only advisor to his late father who’s still alive. Burn it, Kaid, if I wanted the Throne, I could have let that first coup go ahead, or just taken the damned Throne for myself now! I have more of a claim to it than either of them!”

Kaid’s eyes narrowed slightly, then he nodded once. “I’ll see what can be done,” he said.

“You Sholans were born suspicious,” Kezule muttered, sitting back in his chair. “I’m done for now, Kaid. M’kou will take the Lieutenant to the comm room, we’ll talk again at this time tomorrow. Transfer the call there, Shezhul,” he said to his daughter.

Kusac, meanwhile, had gone across the corridor to the lab beyond the sick bay to see Zayshul.

“There’s nothing wrong, is there?” she asked anxiously, turning round as he came in.

“No, I needed a break, that’s all. Kezule’s taking a call from Kaid and I’m not ready to speak to him yet,” he said, leaning against her bench.

The rainbow hued skin around her eye sockets creased. “Why?”

“Many reasons, not least that when I left, I made sure matters between us were less than friendly so he wouldn’t be tempted to follow me.”

“Surely now he’ll understand why,” she said.

He shrugged his shoulders. “We need to talk properly tonight. Can you get away?”

“Of course.” She hesitated, looking away from him, the light reflecting off her slightly textured pale green scalp. “Tell me about the knife wound you got from Dzaou during your Challenge fight,” she said, lowering her voice.

“I told you at the time, it was shallow, just a slice,” he said evasively.

“You know it wasn’t. It was a stab wound, up near your armpit. I got a better look at it than you did, because of the angle. Yet when I came to stitch it, it had almost healed. We need to talk about that.”

He gave a slight shiver, as if cold fingers were trailing down his spine, like a premonition, and suddenly knew he had to leave. “Later, then. In my suite. I’ll ask Jayza or Banner to take Shaidan for an hour or so.”

She nodded. “We should take the time together anyway because of the scent marker. I want to find out why it hasn’t been affecting you the way it did when you were away on the trip to Ch’almuth.”

Inwardly, he cursed, but reached out to touch her cheek with gentle fingertips.

“It’s still there, I’ve just gotten better at controlling it,” he said. If what he’d come to suspect in the last few hours since his fight to the death with Dzaou was true, there was no way he could tell her right now that he’d actually turned off the effects of her scent marker. One person who might know what had been done to him, and why, was K’hedduk, and now he was within reach.

The shiver swept through him again, diverting his attention. “Is it just me, or is it a little colder in here than usual?” he asked.

“I noticed it too,” she agreed, leaning forward for her comm unit. “This is Doctor Zayshul in the Command level lab. Would you check the heating in here, please? I think it may be faulty — it’s getting cold.”

“Will do, Doctor,” came Zhalmo’s voice.

“I hope everything is all right,” she said, frowning.

“I’m sure it is,” Kusac said, reaching out to smooth the skin on the top of her nose. That was where the first hint of the blues and purples that surrounded her eyes began, he found himself noticing. With a start, he drew back, mentally shaking himself. He shouldn’t be thinking like this about her! He’d damped down his response to her scent, so what was making him behave like this?

“Nothing wrong with the temperature,” Zhalmo’s voice said from the hand comm. “I’m having the engineers check it out, though, just in case.”

“Thanks,” Zayshul said, switching the palm sized unit off and putting it back on her bench.

“I have to go,” he said abruptly, shivering again as vague memories of the nightmares of frozen wastes that he’d had the last few nights returned to him. “The meeting is about to start again. I’ll be in my quarters after third meal.”

“See you then,” she agreed as he turned to leave.

Banner followed M’kou into the comm office with mixed feelings. Kaid was one of the very few people who’d earned more than his respect, he’d earned his allegiance. When he’d been asked, all those months ago, to keep an eye on Kusac during his recuperation after the ill-fated Jalna mission, his loyalties had been clear cut. Now, six months down the line serving as Kusac’s Second, they weren’t.

“Strange how easy it is to slip into habits, isn’t it, Lieutenant?” M’kou said, going over to the desk and keying the inset controls to bring the comm screen mounted on the right hand wall to life. “So many of those we follow today, both on the military and civilian side, are due to Captain Aldatan.”

Banner grunted non-committally, waiting for the General’s son to finish.

“Our people, all of them, even the Ch’almuthians, trust and respect him, you know. They like continuity. I believe continuity, especially in command, is vital.”

Now M’kou had his full attention.

“Considering what we’ve all been through,” continued the young Prime, “I believe it would be — unfortunate — if anything was said that might cast doubt on the Captain’s ability to lead the mission to retake the Palace of Light with the General.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Banner demanded, a low rumble of anger underscoring his words. “Are you threatening me?”

M’kou looked genuinely shocked. “Far from it! I’m only trying to tell you how much faith and trust we have in you and your Captain.”

“Trust! That’s an alien concept to some of you.” Banner bared his teeth in an almost silent snarl, taking a step closer to him. “I haven’t forgotten the part you played in drugging our Captain and procuring a female . . .”

“Lieutenant,” M’kou interrupted, coming out from behind the desk. “Doctor Zayshul has said more about this than you ever could. And when she was done yelling at the General and myself, she exacted a revenge on us I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.” He shuddered, obviously at the memory. “I have also apologized to your Captain and we’ve made our peace with each other.”

Taken aback at this outpouring, Banner looked skeptically at the younger male.

“What did she do?”

“That needn’t concern you,” M’kou replied, his pale green skin darkening in obvious embarrassment. “The whole incident, from start to finish, was contained. Only those directly involved — and yourselves — are aware anything happened, and none of them will ever discuss it. It’s obvious you’re about to give your report on your time here to the Captain’s family, and that it will, most likely, affect whether or not there is Sholan resistance to Captain Aldatan’s leadership. I’m only asking that he not be deprived of the position he’s earned because of his recent actions. Especially because our people trust him.”

“That’s Kezule talking.”

“No, it isn’t. I admire your Captain, Banner, and hope that one day I’ll possess the skills and self restraint he’s shown.” M’kou moved past him, indicating the desk and comm. “I’ll leave you to make your call. Please at least consider what I’ve said.”

Banner watched him leave before taking his seat. He was thinking through what M’kou had said — and what he hadn’t.

Kaid flicked an ear at him in greeting, his seemingly random slight finger movements enquiring if Banner was alone or being monitored.

“You look well,” he said.

“We’re all well, ” Banner replied, signaling he was alone, and the call wasn’t being monitored as far as he knew. “We’ve been treated like members of the crew.”

Briefing room, later

Kusac sat playing idly with his stylus, ignoring the flicking images of K’hedduk’s ascension to the Throne of Light playing once more on the large screen behind Kezule, just as he’d automatically filtered out the sounds of the voices around him for the past hour. Back and forth the same arguments had gone among the same few people, principally Banner, Security head M’zynal, Captain Zhookoh, lately escaped with his crew from K’hedduk’s take-over of K’oish’ik, and Kezule.

He was still aware of Kaid — and through him, of Carrie — holding their own briefing and planning session on the Tooshu. Unlike his present company, they’d come up with a couple of good ideas, but nothing yet that made a complete plan. He let his mind drift, adding their own pool of knowledge, taking Kaid’s ideas and expanding on them, playing with various scenarios in his mind’s eye.

Just as his eyelids began to droop, Banner dug him in the ribs with his elbow.

“Kusac!” he hissed.

With a jerk, he sat up to find all eyes on him.

“If you’re not up to this meeting, Kusac,” said Kezule, his tone one of concern, “then go back to your quarters and rest. I’m sure Banner can brief you later. It’s only been a few hours since your fight with Dzaou.”

“I’m fine,” he said shortly, deciding he’d had enough and it was time for him to speak out. He leaned forward, searching among the sheets of briefing documents they’d all been issued. “I’m just tired of sitting here listening to the same arguments. We can’t wait for the Couana to get here, we need to act now, not sit on our butts talking!”

“They’ll be here in two days,” said Banner.

“And it takes another three to reach the Prime world! Plus none of you,” he glared round the small group of Primes and Banner, “have gotten even the germ of a workable plan yet!” Grasping hold of a couple of sheets, he eased himself to his feet. “Well I have.”

Pushing his chair back, he limped round the conference table to where Kezule sat watching him intently.

“Here’s a plan, one that will work if we act now, before K’hedduk digs himself deep into the Palace and gets its antiquated defenses up and running.” He tossed the first sheet in front of the General. “That’s a schedule of shipping expected at the Prime Orbital platform in the next few days. There’s only one, the U’Churian Rryuk family merchanter due in three days. They’re Warriors, and Clan allies of ours. I can contact them and arrange a rendezvous. If I take a small team with me, once we’re on board and we’ve docked, they’ll join us in taking the Orbital. You said there’s only a small crew there, all Prime pacifists. Even if K’hedduk has sent any of his implanted guards, or the genetically modified warrior types up to supervise them, he’s only got a total of three hundred and twenty. He can’t spare more than about five, maximum. The U’Churians have a crew of seven, plus their four Cabbarans, and if I take another four with me, we can easily handle them.”

“What does that achieve?” demanded M’zynal. “What about the Kz’adul, berthed there?”

“What about her?” he asked, rounding on the young male, staggering slightly as he did so. “They’re on alert, so K’hedduk’s few warriors won’t leave her, and you know the six thousand odd crew members will run for cover if they hear a raised voice!”

“They’re not quite that bad,” murmured Kezule, hiding the ghost of a smile behind his already raised hand.

“Captain, take my seat,” said M’kou, getting to his feet and touching Kusac briefly on the arm.

Gratefully, he accepted it. “No one will be expecting us, M’zynal,” he said. “If you’ve got soporific gas canisters, we can use them. In our battle suits, we’ll be well protected.”

“Battle suits?” echoed Banner. “What battle suits? We don’t have any with us.”

“We’ve eight,” said Kusac, glancing across at him. “But they’re in my cabin, on the Venture. The Primes installed a concealed armory there with the suits and a selection of munitions. As for what taking the orbital will achieve, their weather is controlled from there, isn’t it? If I can take a couple of civilian engineers from here, they can create havoc on the world below. Meanwhile, we can contact the Kz’adul on one of the channels all ships use for unofficial ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore chat and get some of the friendlies to let us on board and point us in the direction of K’hedduk’s people.”

“Be a helluva lot easier if we had the shutdown codes,” muttered Zhookoh.

“Shutdown codes?” asked Kezule, looking across at him.

“The Emperor had codes he could use to shut down each ship in case of a coup. Leave ’em dead in the water,” explained Zhookoh. “It’s new. Ironically, we had it brought in because of K’hedduk.”

“We’d still have to deal with his genetically enhancedwarriors at some point,” said Kezule, thoughtfully stroking his chin. “The idea has good points, Kusac, but if we start tampering with the weather, K’hedduk will know something is wrong on the Orbital, even if the crew keep in regular touch.”

Kusac pushed his second sheet in front of Kezule. “That’s where the asteroid belt round one of your outer planets comes in,” he said. “I assume that like the Kz’adul, you have traction beams on your modern ships?”

“Yes, but you’re not seriously suggesting what I think, are you?” asked Kezule, sitting up to study the photograph, suddenly all attention.

“I am. Send the N’zishok and Mazzu out to collect a few thousand of them, including some larger ones. Single out those ones, put them at the front and attach remote detonation charges on them in case we need to blow them, then tow them close to K’oish’ik and let ’em go so they start heading toward it. If that doesn’t get the other three ships heading out to stop them, I don’t know what will. Meanwhile . . .”

“Meanwhile,” continued Kezule, “the small ones can’t be stopped, and as they hit the atmosphere and burn up, it gives us the cover to launch our drop pod assault! If we get the angle right, they’ll even think the Orbital has been hit, which would account for the weather fluctuations. I like it, Kusac, but if K’hedduk’s got the Palace gun turrets working, to say nothing of the force field, it could turn into bloodbath for us.”

“The HALO drop isn’t the main plan,” said Kusac, sitting back and carefully easing his injured leg out in front of him. The healing wound was beginning to ache – and itch – again. He’d taken more of a beating from the late and unlamented Dzaou than he wanted to admit, even to himself.

Kezule looked at him over the top of the photo, one eye ridge raised questioningly.

“My team is,” he said. This was where his plan differed substantially from Kaid’s. “We go down on the shuttle and infiltrate the tunnel systems, making our way along them to the main control room under the Palace. Once there, we can work from inside to turn the defenses off, or use them against K’hedduk. All your people have to do is create enough of a diversion to pull all K’hedduk’s warriors to the defense perimeter, by the force field relay towers. You’re the General, Kezule, you do what you do best — blend us all into one attack force.”

“If we fail, then the HALO team will be the main plan,” said Banner thoughtfully.

“HALO?” queried M’kou.

“High Altitude, Low Orbit insertion of troops or craft,” said Kusac.

Kezule studied the maps thoughtfully, then turned on the holo display. Instantly a 3-D image of the City and the Palace, showing every level, coalesced about six inches above the conference table.

Tapping a series of buttons set into the keypad in front of him, he rotated the image, then stilled it, decreasing the amount of details until the bare minimum of the tunnels, the underground control complex, and Palace above it remained.

“To go in without more Intel, especially now we have six weeks, would be foolish,” said M’zynal.

“We don’t have . . .” began Kusac and Kezule in unison, both stopping when they realized the other was also speaking.

As Kusac deferred to him, with the ghost of a smile, Kezule continued. “We don’t have six weeks, and we don’t need more Intel. What our young Emperor is managing to get for us is enough.” He glanced back to Kusac. “You realize that the City is built on a hill comprised of sand and limestone?”

“It’s porous, I know. How else could the tunnels have originated, or been so easily expanded to your ancestors’ purpose?”

“It also means if we create the electrical storms we need to disrupt communications between the Orbital and the ships, that those tunnels will be flooded.”

“Our battle suits can handle that,” he said confidently.

“We set traps in the tunnels,” said Zhookoh. “Some of them will still be active despite flooding.”

“Then I’ll take a couple of you with me to deactivate them,” Kusac said more calmly than he felt. He sensed Zayshul bringing analgesics for him and under his breath, began to swear, knowing she’d picked up his discomfort. Drawing attention to the pain he was still suffering was not something he wanted done right now.

“With respect, Captain,” said M’zynal, as the General’s wife entered and went over to him, wordlessly handing him a charged hypo. “I don’t think you’re yet fit to go on such a mission, let alone lead it.”

With little grace, he accepted the hypo, but stuffed it into one of his belt retainers. “I’m fit. The armor is powered anyway. It takes very little effort to move in it.” He shot the Doctor a glance that dared her to say anything, but she left without a word. “Besides, we should meet very little resistance.”

“Your plan is good,” said Kezule, turning the holo image round slowly to study it again from every angle. “I can see only one major flaw. Only Zsurtul can turn off the Orbital’s safety devices, and operate the command center. It needs to take a retinal scan from him.”

“I planned on including him with my team. He’s with Kaid, on the Touiban’s ship.”

Exclamations of disbelief, ignored by both Kezule and Kusac, rippled round the table.

“Yet you don’t want to wait for the Couana to arrive,” said Kezule.

“The Couana’s on their battleship, the Tooshu, right now. They plan to leave it at the outer limits of the Prime system. We tell them to include Prince Zsurtul, then make for K’oish’ik, not here,” he said. “They wait out of scanner range, possibly masked by one of your ships using its chameleon shielding, for a signal from us saying we’ve taken the Orbital. Meanwhile, the rest of the Prime fleet will be picking up the asteroids on their sensors, and hopefully, they’ll be moving away from the planet to intercept them.”

“That should draw at least the two smaller cruisers away from K’oish’ik,” said M’kou thoughtfully.

“Then Zsurtul contacts the Kz’adul on the private frequency I mentioned, and finds out for us what the situation there is like. It may be that the crew can isolate any of K’hedduk’s people they have on board without violence, and take back control of the ship,” said Kusac. “If not, we do it. I’m sure they can manage to conceal us docking with them. Finally, the Couana joins us on the Orbital and Zsurtul deactivates the safety features. The regular crew can then take over from him, creating massive electrical storms, and leaving him free to go downside with me.”

“If those on the Orbital or the Kz’adul are members of the implanted Palace Guard, then they can be rendered unconscious without a shot being fired,” M’kou reminded. “All we need is a remote tuned to their frequency, and we know that.”

“That’s true,” agreed Kezule. “If you have fifteen people when you land on K’oish’ik . . .”

“Too many,” interrupted Kusac. “Ten, maximum, including the Prince. Surely six of your commandos can ensure Zsurtul’s safety in a battle suit?”

“Of course.”

“Six?” Banner asked sharply. “That means no other Sholans.”

“I want you to stay with Kezule and lead one of the HALO units with the rest of our crew,” Kusac said, shifting slightly in his seat in an effort to ease the still increasing pain.

“No,” his Second said flatly. “I’m coming with you.”

Kusac locked eyes with him until the other looked away. “I’ll take Khadui with me,” he compromised. “You and Jayza will be with Kezule and our people from the Couana.”

Kezule switched off the holo image and pushing his chair back, stood up. “We’re going with this idea. It’s time for the evening meal. Take a break, discuss it amongst yourselves, and be back here in two hours to thrash out the finer details.”

As everyone began to get to their feet, Kezule held Kusac back. “Stay,” he said. “We need to talk privately. M’kou, have meals brought here for the two of us.”

“Yes, General.”

“Take the damned analgesic,” said Kezule when they were alone. “I’d be as bad as you in the same circumstances, but that doesn’t make you right.”

Kusac gave a low rumble of annoyance, but followed Kezule’s advice, pushing his tunic aside and pressing the hypo against his thigh more vigorously than he intended.

“You’re avoiding your family.”

“I’m trying to get this job done as quickly as possible,” he said, wincing. He concentrated on stowing away the empty hypo. Already he could feel the drug coursing through his system, dulling the pain from the still healing blaster wound in his upper thigh, and the cut in his side where Dzaou’s knife had stabbed him clear up to the hilt yet somehow left virtually no wound.

“The young Emperor is our only hope, Kusac,” said Kezule, changing the topic abruptly. “I won’t have him put needlessly at risk.”

“Then we’ve little chance on our own of retaking the Palace. You might as well destroy it and start again.” He heard the bite in his tone and, ears tilting slightly, opened his mouth to apologize.

“Forget it,” said Kezule, with a gesture of dismissal. “Has the analgesic cut in yet? Fighting Dzaou like that in your condition was foolish.”

“I know it was, but I had no choice,” he said, frowning as a wave of dizziness swept over him and he realized he was having to force his eyes to focus on the General.

“Destroying the Palace isn’t an option, neither is losing Zsurtul. I have no intention of ruling. I’ll stay and help him, if he wants my help, but that’s all.”

“You’ll leave Kij’ik and all you fought so hard to build?” he asked, realizing, as a false sense of warmth and well-being began to steal through him that Zayshul had laced the drug with a sedative. He sat up, trying to fight off the effects.

“Of course not!” said Kezule, offended. “I intended to convince Zsurtul to continue my plan, but on K’oish’ik. We have more than enough land to accommodate as many Ch’almuthians as want to leave their world to escape the M’zullian raids. As for Kij’ik, I’ll have it towed into the Prime system and manned as a defensive outpost.”

Kezule stopped, and leaned closer to him. “What’s wrong?” he demanded.

“Your wife put a sedative in the hypo as well as an analgesic,” he said, blinking owlishly as he grasped the arm of his chair.

Kezule swore, and reached for a drinking bowl and the jug of water nearby. “I can’t have you falling asleep on me,” he said, pouring Kusac a drink. “We need to refine that plan of yours!” He held the bowl out, helping him to hold it steady. “This is important, Kusac. What did you do when you went into that healing trance? I don’t mean your own mental disciplines, did you do anything else?”

“Like what?” he asked, taking a couple of mouthfuls then pushing the bowl aside. “That won’t help, the drug’s in my blood, not my gut!”

“You used bio-feed back, didn’t you? You obviously know about our Warrior glands because of the drug your people developed. Have you got the same kind of glands?”

“We’re not Valtegans,” he muttered, slumping back in his seat. He knew he needed to rest, but dammit, not now!

Kezule spun his chair round, and taking him by the shoulders, shook him several times.

“Concentrate, Kusac! You’ve been changed, made partly Valtegan, how I don’t know, maybe by that damned scent marker! Have you got those glands? If you have, I can tell you how to use them.”

“Yes,” he said, forcing his eyes open when his head finally stopped moving. “Yes, I have them . . .”

“Then reach inside for them, tell yourself you need to be alert, trigger the gland which produces adrenaline and . . .”

“All right,” he mumbled, reaching mentally inside himself. “I know what to do. It took me by surprise, that’s all.”

“You can’t afford to be taken by surprise,” said Kezule grimly. “You have to remember, and practice, until it becomes second nature — just as using your mental powers is.”

A surge of energy flowed through his limbs, chasing the lethargy before it, then it hit his brain. He shuddered, grasping tightly to the arms of the chair as his senses reeled. When it stopped, he found all traces of the sedative were gone. Startled, he stared at Kezule.

“That was fast even by my standards,” said Kezule dryly. “One of us should have a word with Zayshul about this incident, both about her using the sedative, and how you overcame it.”

“She’s your . . .”

“Don’t — go there,” said Kezule coldly, sitting back in his chair. “For now, we’ re all in a situation we didn’t choose — we’ll make the best of it. I would have thought you’d have sensed what she was planning.”

“She hid it, I was distracted by the pain, and I shouldn’t have been,” Kusac said, equally coldly, more annoyed with himself than her. “I won’t let it happen again.”

“Are you sure you’re fit enough to handle a mission like this?” asked Kezule, his voice returning to normal. “It’s no disgrace if you aren’t, considering your injuries.”

“They’re healing,” he said shortly. They were, and still far faster than was normal.

“I’m aware of that.”

“I have three days. By then, I’ll be more than fit to handle it. As I said, our battle suits are powered.”

“What specs?”

He turned his mind inward, looking where his and Kaid’s shared memories were stored. A moment later he had the information. “They make use of servomotors and gravity dampers to assist movement, giving us the ability to hit a top speed of thirty miles an hour for short bursts, and the ability to jump 2-3 times higher than normal. Weapons are an energy rifle and pistol, and an OC — oscillating — sword. There’s a refractive paint on the suits that renders them all but invisible in low light.”

“Sword?” Kezule looked faintly incredulous.

Kusac grinned widely, showing off the white canines against the black of his pelt. “Useful for close quarters, or when the energy packs run out. The MUTAC is similarly equipped on its jointed tail.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” he murmured. “And they’ll stand immersion in flooded tunnels?”

Kusac nodded as he got to his feet. “They come with their own air supply. One that lasts three hours. I should join the others for third meal now. Jayza will have brought Shaidan up to the mess.”

“I ordered meals to be brought here for us. You can call Jayza and get him to bring your son here, if you like.”

Kusac hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. “I appreciate the thought, but I’ve been separated from my crew for too long. They need to spend time with me. Plus I have to call the Rryuk ship now. And Kezule, I’d prefer it if you didn’t tell Kaid about this mission until after I’ve left to meet up with them.”

Kezule nodded, giving Kusac a curious glance, but said nothing.

When he’d left, Kezule called his son and cancelled the meal arrangements.

“I’ll eat with you, if you like,” M’kou offered. “I’d like a word in private with you.”

“Very well,” he said.

M’kou put his tray down on the table and lifting his father’s plate, set it in front of him.

“Thank you,” said Kezule, picking up his fork. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”

M’kou sat down in his chair and gripped the arms to move himself closer to the table. “What the . . .” he began, lifting his left hand to look at the chair arm.

Kezule glanced over, and froze, fork halfway to his mouth.

“How did that happen?” his son asked, tentatively putting his finger into one of the depressions. “They’re his fingerprints. It looks as if they’re melted into the arm.”

“I can see that,” said Kezule acerbically, putting his fork back on his plate and leaning closer. “Move your hand out of the way.”

M’kou did as he was asked and turned to examine the other chair arm, but it was unmarked. “How did that happen?”

“I have no idea,” said Kezule, probing the marks with his claw tip. “There’s been nothing hot enough to cause that in here.” The marks were deep, each one with the imprint of a claw tip just above it, as if caused by a hand gripping the arm tightly when the surface had been hot and plastic.

“Only Kusac and I have used this chair,” said M’kou, “and those don’t fit any Prime hand.”

“They’re Kusac’s, no doubt of that,” said Kezule with a sigh, sitting up. “More damned anomalies. You’ve read up on their psi abilities – have they any that could have caused this?”

“Not to my knowledge,” said M’kou, cautiously taking hold of the arm again and pulling his chair closer to the table. “But they haven’t been very forthcoming on their psi capabilities with us. And Kusac is different anyway, because he lost his original abilities. Banner told me they only returned after a surgical procedure was performed on him to restore them. Actually, it was about the Captain I wanted to talk.”

“What’s concerning you now?” Kezule asked, beginning to eat.

“Is he fit to lead a team through the tunnels?”

“Not yet, but I believe he will be in three days time.”

“I’d better accompany him to make sure.”

Kezule glared at his son. “You’ll stay here, looking after Kij’ik and the children,” he said forcefully. “Your warrior glands have been destroyed, you no longer have the ability to use bio-feed back. I’ll not have you putting yourself in danger.”

“I’m not staying here,” said M’kou stubbornly.

“It’s an order,” interrupted Kezule. “It’s not open to discussion. And have that chair stowed in my office after you’ve finished eating.”

Character Lists for Between Darkness and Light by on

Compiled by Marsha Jones.


Earth Human
Keissian Human
mixed Leska
Prime Valtegans
M’zull Valtegans
Ch’almuth Valtegans
offspring of mixed Leskas
ancient times
third member of Triad


Aizshuss (L,m) – Camarilla handler of Kzizysus
Aizshuss (L,m) – Camarilla member, friend of Shvosi
Alex (H,t,f,ML) – Leska to Rhyaz

Andy (H,m) – visiting Earth Human doctor
Annuur (C,m) – Captain of Watcher ship with Tirak and his U’Churians
Azwokkus (L,m) – probably Leader of Reformers but not stated. 🙂


Banner (S,m) – Kusac’s crew, Second in command


Carrie (H,t,f,ML,tri) – Leska to Kaid now, Triad partner to Kusac and Kaid, wife of Kusac
chaiu – Valtegan local anaesthetic which when combined with laoe makes Sholans very amenable (works like Pentothal truth serum)
Chazukk (VM,m) – Leader of 16 Prime bred M’zullians on Kij’ik

Cheelar (PV,m) – kid commando captured in coup by K’hedduk
Chiozo (VP,m) – kid commando who does some catering for Kezule
Chy’tu (VP,m) – Civilian screens operator on N’zishok etc.
Conner (H,t,m) – the Merlin’s real name when he goes to the Brotherhood on Shola


D’haalmu (VP,m) – kid commando on Kij’ik
Dhyshac (S,t,m) – son of Kaid and Kate, dark brown color, 10 yr old
Dzaou (S,m) – Brotherhood, Kusac’s crew, was a Sleeper

Dzaka (S,t,m,L) – Kitra’s Leska, Kaid’s son
Dziou (S,t,m) – acolyte youth of Ghyan’s at the Shrine on Kusac’s estate, 17 yr old


Emperor Cheu’koh (PV,m) – Prime Emperor, Prince Zsurtul’s father
Empress Zsh’eungee (VP,f) – Empress of Prime world, Prince Zsurtul’s mother

Empress Kszafas (V,t,f) – Valtegan Empress in newly discovered ancient history, responsible for breeding Valtegans into 3 castes, and for creating the Empire by conquering their allies


Fingoh (S,m) – Sholan Ambassador on Prime world


Gaerat Rhasho (S,t,m) – Sholan Ambassador to London
Garras (S,m) – bonded to Vanna, Estate Manager normally
Gaylla (S,t,f) – Kate & Taynar’s daughter , slightly backward, gray color, 10 yr old
Gelshuk (PV,m) – gene altered thug of K’hedduk’s

Ghidd’ah (VP,f) – Civilian medic and personal friend to Zayshul
Ghioass – TeLaxaudin world and home to main Camarilla Council
Ghyan (S,t,m) – Priest in Vartra’s Shrine on Kusac’s estate, Second to Lijou
Giyarishis (L,m) – resident on Kij’ik, works in Hydro level and with Zayshul in med lab


Hkairass (L,m) – main Isolationist party TeLaxaudin on Camarilla
Htomshu (L,f) – Moderate party TeLaxaudin on Camarilla


J’kayuk (PV,f) – Civilian, third Court female but no longer visited by Kezule
J’korrash (PV,f) – female kid commando escapee to Kij’ik
Jay (H,m) – visiting Earth doctor on Kusac’s estate, tries to chat up Carrie

Jayza (S,m) – Brotherhood, Kusac’s crew on Kij’ik
Jo (H,f,t,ML,tri) – Leska to Rezac, in Triad with Zayshul
Jurrel (S,m) – Brotherhood sword-brother of Banner


K’hedduk / Kheddar (PV,m) – Head of Directorate/his undercover name – is actually the M’zullian Emperor’s brother and a M’zull/Ch’almuthian half breed
Kaid (S,t,m,ML,tri) – Leska to Carrie now, sword-brother to Kusac, Triad partner to Carrie and Kusac

Kayikule (PV,m) – a General, Kezule’s commando son left to lead the other 80 on Prime world
Keeshu (Ch,m) – Ch’almuthian youth earlier, then later becomes a new recruit to Kezule’s military cadre on Kij’ik who is leading a unit practicing just before Hydroponic level fight at end of novel

keffa – Valtegan drink (hot? Cold?) Prefer it a hot drink
Kitra (S,t,f,L) – Dzaka’s Leska, Kusac’s sister of 15
Khadui (S,m) – Brotherhood, Kusac’s crew, was a Sleeper
Khassiss (L,f) – Moderate member of Camarilla
Khayla (S,m) – Kitra and Dzaka’s infant son

Khim (S,t,m) – acolyte of Ghyan at Shrine, 13 yr old
Khioz (VP,f) – Civilian, Lab assistant to Zayshul (reddish markings)
Kho’ikk (PV,m) – captured kid commando on Prime world
Kij’ik – name of Kezule’s Outpost.
Kiosh (VP,f) – Civilian female friend of Banner

Konis (S,t,m) – Clan Lord of al telepath Clans, Kusac’s father, Head of AlRel
korra – Sholan term of endearment to a daughter
korrai – Sholan term of endearment to a son (based on the Greek word, Marsha)
Kusac (S,t,m,tri) – Our Hero with feet of clay, sword-brother of Kaid, Carrie’s husband, Triad partner to Carrie and Kaid

Kushool (VP,f) – Civilian, sensor operator for N’zishok
Kuvaa (C,t,f) – seems to be most senior Cabbaran Camarilla member we have come across so far
kyiu – Valtegan main anaesthetic for surgery
Kzizysus (T,m) – TeLaxaudin doing medicine on Kusac’s estate


L’Seuli (S,t,m,L) – Commander and Leader of Haven & Brotherhood Priests there, Leska to Jiosha
L’Shoh – Sholan Liege of Hell – the Judge of souls in their underworld
La’shol – Valtegan fertility Goddess (obviously an ancient goddess not used in Kezule’s time)
laalgo level – slow heart rate, mind turned inward to assess physical injuries

laoe – Valtegan strong analgesic – see above
Lazaik (PV,f) – female civilian on Kij’ik, M’kou’s partner, she scent marks him at some point
Lijou (S,t,m) – Guild Master of Priesthood, do Guild Master of Brotherhood
Lirtosh (VP,m) – Civilian leader on Kij’ik

Liyak (Ch,f) – Ch’almuthian civilian female M’kou asks to drug Kusac for Kezule, and to remove scent marker
Lorish (VP,f) – Civilian, Banner’s lady friend/briefly lover
louz – Valtegan hot herbal drink, good for headaches & shock
Lufsuh (PV,m) – second-in-command of Inquisitors

Lweeu (C,f) – Engineering and weapons – mate of Annuur’s group
Lymuh (PV,f) – Civilian on Kij’ik Outpost


M’kou (VP,m) – the diplomat son, very like his father Kezule would have been if less brutal upbringing
M’szudoe (PV,m) – Prime Ambassador on Shola
M’yikku (VP,m) – male kid commando escapee from coup

M’zayash (ChV,t,f) – Ch’almuthian Matriarchal leader and powerful telepath
M’zayik – ancient ship Kezule has, cruiser class – met Kusac in end of last book
M’zikk (PV,m) – Head Inquisitor on Prime world
M’zynal (VP,m) – military, kid commando Security Chief, weapons

Maaz’ih (VP,m) – military, kid commando Navigation
maush – Valtegan drink first mentioned by Zsurtul in Nadir when he’s taken by Kaid to Haven in escape
Mayza (V,f) – Kezule & Zayshul’s infant daughter
Mazzu – the escaping kid commandos’ Patrol Cruise that brought them to Kij’ik


Na’qui (VP,f) – Civilian, Zayshul’s medic assistant (green markings)
Naacha (C,t,m) – mystic and telepath of Annuur’s sept
Nadouk (CH,m) – Ch’almuthian recruited Security guard who shoots Kusac
Nassad (S,m) – Brotherhood leader at Anchorage Outpost

Ngingoh (VP,m) – kid commando
Nisho (PV,f) – Civilian, one of the 3 Court ladies Kezule took to the Outpost
Noni (S,t,f) – the wild-card healer and all round good, grumpy girl
Nishon (ChV,m) – male at Ch’almuth spaceport

Noolgoi (PV,m) – military, kid commando, sensors
Nyan (S,t,m) – Kusac’s main house attendant (butler)


passageway – a fast transport not unlike a generated wormhole between Kij’ik and Ch’almuth and we think between Ch’almuth and M’zull. Device set into space station at Ch’almuth and on Outpost, allows unit taken from Zan’droshi to be used on N’zishok for fast trip to Ch’almuth.


Q’almo (VP,m) – military, kid commando, Zayshul’s bodyguard at one time, Security


Rhyaz (S,t,m,ML) – Guild Master of Brotherhood with Lijou, Leska to Alex
Rishu (S,f) – T’Chebbi & Kaid’s infant daughter Rezac (S,t,m,ML,tri) – originally Leska to Zayshul, now Leska to Jo, and in Triad with Zayshul, Kaid’s youthful father of 25 I think…


Schooma (VP,f) – Civilian computer operator on N’zishok
Shaalgo (ChV,m) – another at spaceport
Shamgar (S,m) – Brother at Prime Embassy as above
shan-Q’emgo’h – honorific Valtegan title meaning ‘of the family of’. Q’emgo’h is the name of Kezule’s Emperor and he was a relative of his. Like our surname.

Shartoh (VP,m) – military, kid commando, Engineering
Shaya (S,t,m) – acolyte of Ghyan’s at Shrine, 14 yr old
Shayal (U/S,f) – Jeran and Giyesh’s half-breed one-of daughter
Shaylor (S,t,m) – Taynar & Carrie’s cub, tan color, 10 yr old

Shekkul (PV,m) – one of K’hedduk’s gene altered thugs
Shezhul (VP,f) – military, kid commando.
Shi’Kui (S,m) – Brother attached to Sholan Embassy on Prime world – dies in coup
Shikoh (ChV,f) – Nishon’s wife

Shishu (PV,f) – Civilian, Kezule’s mistress and his main Court lady, also nursery nurse to the Prime children later
Shiya (VP,f) – kid commando, captured during coup, taken off to Kh’edduk’s harem
Shrulo (B,m) – Cabbaran acting as Kzizysus’ bodyguard on Kusac’s estate
Shumass (L,m) – Camarilla Isolationist

Shvosi (C,t,f) – handler of Annuur on Camarilla
Shyadd (PV,m) – Prime Counselor (meaning First) to Prime Emperor
Sokarr (C,m) – comms on Watcher ship, member of Annuur’s sept
Suatoo (T,f) – main female Touiban

Syppesh (U,f) – U’Churian Matriarch of the rryuk Clan and Grandmother to Giyesh


T’Chebbi (S,f) – Kaid’s Companion and Carrie’s bodyguard
Tanjo (S,m) – Brotherhood Instructor for Sleepers, currently looking after the 5 cubs at Haven
Throne of Light – Prime Emperor’s throne
Toueesut – Speaker of Touiban hive, owner of Couana

Tooshu – Touiban Mother warship looking like a Contact ship **may need to change that name, awful like one below**
Tuushu Station – Chemerian space station near their home world
Twuleat (T,f) – another female Touiban in the hive


Vanna (S,t,f,L,tri) – Doctor on Kusac’s estate, Garras’ mate, Leska to Brynne, Triad with Keeza, bonded to Garras
Vartra – God and general dogsbody for the Camarilla – for now.
Vasih (S,t,f) – Rezac & Kate’s daughter, light brown, 10 yr old
Vaygan (S,m) – Brother attached to Sholan Embassy on K’oish’ik, the Prime world


Yashui (S,t,f) – nurse to Kashini & other children
Yokidi (S,m) – Brother attached to Sholan Embassy on Prime world, dies in coup


Zan’droshi – Kezule’s ancient warship
Zarkil (VM,m) – one of 16 Prime M’zullians
Zaykkuh – (VP,m) – military, kid commando, Captain of N’zishok
Zh’adasho – Prime sister ship to Kz’adul, but needs to be named in last chapter

Zhaddi (S,t,m) – youth who helps in kitchen in Kusac’s villa
Zhaimiss (L,m) – Camarilla Isolationist
Zhala (S,t,f) – cook to Kusac, Carrie and Kaid in villa
Zhalmo – (VP,f) – kid commando, military, comms on Zan’droshi

Zhasho – Prime cruiser 2,000 ton, crew of 50
Zhookoh (PV,m) – Captain of Mazzu though not mentioned
Zoshur (PV,m) – Leader of gene altered Prime thugs of K’hedduk’s
Zsafar (PV,m) – kid commando escaped from Prime world coup (crew of 20 on Mazzu escaped)

Zsayal (S,t,m) – Rezac & Carrie’s cub, sandy color, 10 yr old
Zsurtul (PV,m) – Prince and Heir, called Enlightened One in ref to the throne
Zayshul (PV,t,f) – Doctor on Kij’ik and Kezule’s wife

Four ex slave races of Valtegan Empire

Hrana – 6 limbed centaurs, beaver tails, polar bear body shape, biologists who breed plants to take up metals so no need to mine them.
Mryans – Heavy set, gray leathery skins, ugly, argumentative

Vieshen – tall, thin, bird-like
Delmoi – can’t find description right now. 🙂

Characters Only Mentioned

Commander Chuz (S,m) – Combined Forces Sholan High Command rep
General Naika (S,m) – Ground Troops Sholan High Command rep
Commander Rhilgo (S,m) – Space navy Sholan High Command rep
General Raiban (S,f) – Leader of Military Intelligence and of the Sholan High Command

Khyan (S,t,m) – son of Sholan Ambassador to London and new Merlin
Tirak (U,m) – Captain of Watcher ship with Annuur
Sheeowl (U,f) – Tirak’s engineer
Manesh (U,m) – Tirak’s security, I think
Ghyakulla – Sholan Earth Goddess