Fire Margins Excerpt by on

PROLOGUE

“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Should I, on your advice, have detoured to this world and be unable to accomplish our mission, those privileges can be rescinded.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.

CHAPTER 1

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.”

“Us.”

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.”

“Explain.”

“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.