I wasn’t given time to ponder their future or my own. The corridor widened into a bulb of a room, lined with sophisticated equipment, the walls broken at regular intervals by closed doors. A Tuli opened one of these and handed me the same white robe worn by the wretches in the cells. Eyeing the muscular shoulders and impassive faces of my captors, I entered meekly enough, to re-emerge stripped save for the loose garment. My treasured coveralls were tossed into a disposal chute, and I thought the Tuli who did it looked relieved. I nursed what small strength of rebellion I had as gooseflesh rose on my arms, even though the room was too warm.
One of the Tulis pointed to a bench positioned under a complex machine. It was the bravest thing I remembered doing—to climb up and lie there, waiting.INTERLUDE
The feel of a warm sharpness along one’s throat was a decidedly unpleasant way to end a deserved moment of peace, Barac decided, holding his mind and body motionless. He opened his eyes with a careful lack of haste. Now what?
“An unexpected pleasure, Clansman.” Jason Morgan’s piercing eyes met Barac’s—their expression scarcely less icy than that low voice. “I trust you’ve been enjoying yourself.”
“I’ve slept better,” Barac countered, shoving away the Human’s unresisting knife hand. The Clansman sat upright and glared. “Hell of a way to wake a guest.”
The knife caught a gleam of light before Morgan turned off the blade and made the handle disappear up the right sleeve of his faded blue coveralls. “Considering I locked the Fox up tight, you can’t blame me for being a bit surprised myself, old friend.” He moved past the Clansman to enter his choice at the galley’s servo panel. The Human didn’t bother to ask how Barac had bested Port Authority to enter his ship; he knew well enough.
Barac resisted the urge to feel the still-tender skin of his throat. Instead he stretched, the movement drawing an involuntary hiss of pain from his lips.
Cup in hand, Morgan put a foot up onto a stool and leaned his arms on his knee. His expression was openly suspicious. “Hurt,” he observed. “And probably in hiding, too. You’ve got a bad habit of making yourself at home whenever you’re in trouble, Barac.”
“I could use a favor,” Barac admitted.
Morgan snorted with disgust and took a sip of his drink before answering. “Who’ve you stirred up now—Clan or the Trade Pact?”
Barac couldn’t quite smile. “Both. That’s why I’ve come to you.”
Morgan scowled but only said: “Hungry? I’d be a poor host to throw you out before feeding you.” He tossed a nutritious but decidedly tasteless package of c-cubes on the table.
“Your galley can do better than that,” Barac commented less than tactfully.
“I’m sure you know,” the Human said dryly. “But I’m booked to lift and eating slowly is a luxury I can’t afford. Neither is your roundabout approach to things, Barac. What do you want?”
As usual, Barac found himself wishing Morgan didn’t possess such strong natural shielding. The Human’s thoughts were simply impossible to touch. Like Bowman’s, Barac thought with sudden suspicion. He opened his mind to the M’hir, focusing on Morgan, searching for the telltale disturbance. Nothing. No device, but no exposed thoughts.
What had he expected? Barac asked himself with scorn. No Human mind had ever penetrated the M’hir, at least not since the Clan had first begun monitoring the layer for intrusion. It was believed Humans were incapable of the power needed to push thought into the layer or to hold against its remorseless currents. That belief might change, Barac thought grimly, once he reported how the Humans had built a device that could disturb the M’hir.
But here and now, the M’hir’s turbulence was soothingly familiar. There was no detectable alteration in it within Barac’s range. Barac pulled free, relieved. Perhaps Morgan was what he seemed, a curiosity, an unreadable Human.
Or perhaps he was more. Morgan had always amused Kurr, as had Barac’s insistence on shielding their thoughts from the Human. But First Scouts survived by trusting no preconceptions.
And Kurr was dead.
“I sometimes wonder why I don’t report you to the Council and have you erased,” Barac said with some exasperation. “I should, you know.”
Morgan looked unconcerned, having heard this before; the Sarcs had been steady customers over the years. “You enjoy defying them, Barac,” the Human said. “And, as long as you don’t owe me credits, I see no reason to twitch the curiosity of any Pact Enforcers.”
Barac grimaced. “I’ve already accomplished that. Another day, Jason,” he added, seeing the curiosity that sharpened Morgan’s gaze. “As you’ve said, your time is short. Mine is also. I have to leave Auord immediately.”
Morgan sighed. “If a lift’s what you’re after, why didn’t you say so? Stow your gear—but be quick.”
“No. Not that I don’t enjoy your unique way of waking guests. I need you to do something for me in the Port City.”
Morgan stood, gathering up his unfinished cubes and tucking them into a pocket with a spacer’s absentminded tidiness. “Then you need someone else. I’ve a schedule to keep.”
Barac lunged across the narrow table, wincing as his torn rib muscles protested, but managing to grasp Morgan’s arm. “There’s no one else I can reach in time.”
With an easy movement, the Human shrugged free of Barac’s grip. But he stood still. “I’m listening.”
“That’s all I ask.” Barac sat down again, his hands wrapped tightly around his middle to hide their trembling. It also helped hold together the ribs which were again grating each time he drew a breath. “I need you to find someone. I had a companion when I arrived on Auord. We were attacked last night.” The Clansman gritted his teeth, remembering. “During the struggle, we were separated.”
“Attacked? How?” Morgan sat back down. He supported his chin on steepled fingers, watching Barac intently.
“They hit during the storm.” Barac considered Morgan for a moment, then added: “They had mind-deadening devices. Conveniently stolen, I am to believe. Maybe I do.”
The Human digested this in silence, then raised one brow. “Your companion?”
“Her name is Sira. I know she escaped in the confusion.” Barac hesitated, unsure of how much to say, how much to leave out. “I can’t detect her. She could be anywhere—alone, possibly injured. You know people in the city. You could find her, get her offworld without alerting the authorities—”
Morgan’s blue eyes flashed. “While you abandon her? I thought the Clan looked after their own.”
“I can’t stay on Auord a moment longer.” Barac tightened his lips, studying the human’s face, frustrated he couldn’t reach into the mind behind those scornful eyes and make Morgan do what was necessary, know only what was necessary. He hated having to stoop to reason.
Still, there didn’t appear to be any alternative. “Whoever ordered the attack last night was after me,” Barac began reluctantly.
Morgan held up his hand. “I want nothing to do with Clan squabbles,” he said emphatically. “My time is tight—”
“Kurr and I were checking on a Council matter in this quadrant,” Barac went on as if he hadn’t heard. “Kurr’s been killed. Last night’s attack was aimed at me. The best thing I can do for Sira is to lead whoever’s after me away from her until I can deal with them.”
The impatience drained from Morgan’s features, replaced by a shock which darkened the blue of his eyes. “Kurr’s dead? But how—his power . . .”
Barac held out one slim hand and gazed at the fist he formed. “Power . . .” he repeated, his voice trailing away to silence. He paused so long Morgan shifted in his seat. Then, slowly: “We of the Clan aren’t so different from you, Human. We measure our strength by comparison, one against the other. It tells us who is in control—and who is vulnerable. Or does it? Kurr was killed by power, but by whose? Even as Kurr died, he burned my name into the metal of his ship’s floor plate. I,” Barac opened his fist, holding the empty hand palm upward. “I can’t do such a thing whole and well. But Kurr’s the one gone.”
“Kurr was a brother to be proud of,” Morgan offered gently. “I will honor the debt between us,” he said more formally, as someone making a vow.
Barac made no effort to hide his pain, letting it add a cold edge to his voice. “Any debts to be settled are mine, Human.” Barac forced himself back to the topic at hand with an effort, trying to make his tone persuasive. At least the being was listening. “If you want to help, find Sira and get her safely off Auord. I’ll meet you on Camos as soon as possible.” Barac drew a small plate from his pocket. “I had this made in the market—it’s the best I can do.”
Morgan took the plate, sparing only a quick glance at its imprisoned memory of a woman or girl, dressed in the latest insystem fashion, hair elaborately dyed and styled, eyes too large for the face. Barac tensed. Would he refuse?
“The best you could’ve done was to leave me out of it,” Morgan snapped, but not unkindly. He tucked the plate away in a pocket. “Failing that, tell me the rest.”
Barac’s ribs burned like a ring of fire. The way Morgan persisted in complicating what should have been simple didn’t help. “Tell you what?” the Clansman snapped. “They attacked us last night, on Embassy Row. That doesn’t matter. Sira will try to reach the shipcity, to look for transport. She knows the way—and she knows to avoid Enforcers or Port Authority.”
“Won’t she be looking for you?” Morgan probed.
“No!” At once, Barac knew he’d made a bad mistake; he was familiar enough with Humans to see that Morgan was plainly startled by his denial. The Clansman flushed. “No,” he repeated at a more reasonable volume. “I’m not her concern. Sira needs to leave Auord.”
“Your ways are stranger than I thought, Clansman,” Morgan said with a return to his former coolness.
“I was her escort here, nothing more. Sira must go to Camos; Auord was merely a stopover to change transport. At least, that was the plan.” Barac went on quickly, feeling himself forced to explain more and more, wondering if it was worth it. “She’s alone,” he repeated. “With no power or weapon of her own. Any chance she has depends upon my leaving this world and your helping her do the same.”
Morgan drummed his fingers on the table thoughtfully. “This favor of yours will create a debt against the Fox. I’ll have to pay penalties, extra dock fees . . .”
Relieved, Barac quickly pushed a small clear bag of currency gems in front of Morgan. “If you need more, we’ll settle it on Camos.” He stood.
Morgan stayed where he was. “You said you can’t detect her. Could it be because she’s dead?”
Barac froze. It was a reasonable question, but answering it was treading into dangerous waters, even with a “friend.” Not answering would probably lose Morgan’s cooperation. He sighed.
“I can’t detect Sira because she travels under a special form of protection—one that hides her from Clan adepts.”
Morgan poked at the bag of gems with one finger. “I’m sure you won’t tell me why,” he commented.
“No,” Barac agreed, tight-lipped. He studied Morgan’s face, then added with a sudden recklessness. “But there is one more thing I have to tell you. Because of this protection, Sira will not know who or what she is.” And with those words, his face and body shimmered and disappeared.
Jason Morgan, captain of the trade ship Silver Fox, and native to a system so distant from this one that few recognized its name, calmly cursed in a tongue definitely not learned in his planet-bound youth. Then he picked up the currency gems and, tipping the bag, let their multicolored richness spill over the tabletop.
“Not enough for this one, Clansman,” he muttered, walking out, leaving the gems behind.
WELL, my chances of leaving Auord seemed to be improving. A comfort of sorts, I decided, but one that did nothing to push away the darkness in my closetlike prison. I bit my lip to stop its trembling as my thoughts twisted through the hours just past, hours spent being poked, prodded, and otherwise treated like a slab of meat.
However, and quite unexpectedly, I was alive. Presumably this meant those same tests had satisfied Roraqk. Of course, the Tulis might simply not have bothered to kill me yet. I shuddered, thinking of the drug they had pumped into me. I felt the same, which didn’t necessarily mean normal. What had they given me? And why? What Kort had said made no sense to me. What was a mindcrawler? The word made something in my thoughts slide away.
I shook my head to clear it. Maybe the Tulis were killing me, I concluded, tired to the bone and almost more frustrated than afraid—hungry to the point of light-headedness, too, though by fumbling in the dark I’d found a water outlet and a small basin for essentials. A coverless cot took up the back wall. I’d been lying on it most of the time—finding it hazardous to pace given the lock bar fastened across my ankles.
But rest eluded me. Other questions were waiting, rising and whirling through my mind like eddies in a stream: Who was I? What was I? Why was I sure Auord wasn’t my world? Where were these ideas in my mind coming from, trying to order my thoughts, telling me I had to leave? And where did they want me to go?
Once in a while I stopped a question, examined it more carefully, then let it drift loose in the current again. I had no answers. Answers were unlikely to help me now anyway. But I might feel better if I understood.
A series of distant thuds broke my concentration;
I thought, then wondered if thunder could be heard so far down. Another series, this time closer, vibrating the walls and floor of my cell. I sat up too rapidly and had to fight dizziness.
I took three step-hops to the door, only to bump my nose abruptly and painfully on the edge of the now open panel. The lights were off in the corridor; the darkness pressed like something physical against my skin. I hesitated, weighing the risks. The lack of light, the lock bar—these I could overcome. But what were those new sounds?
I broke into a cold sweat, suddenly no longer here but back in the night and rain, buffeted by an explosion. Bodies flying past into the shadows, propelled by flame, the odor of cooked flesh. Running, fighting to think . . .