I forced myself to the here and now, but the image lingered, clarifying what I could hear. Someone was fighting a battle—probably on an upper level, or I’d have seen its light. I could hear low cries of hope and confusion from my fellow prisoners. The force fields must be down in the hallway. I drew back against the wall, unpleasantly sure of our fate should it look like the recruiters were losing. I carefully hopped back inside my cell, crouching in the space of floor behind the open door.
First and foremost, I had to be free of the lock bar. I tore at its fastening, succeeding only in breaking the remainder of my fingernails in the effort. Then, with an abruptness that boded ill for the defenders of this hole, the sounds stopped. I breathed as lightly as I could in the waiting silence.
Lights appeared in the hall, not the ones I remembered but dancing spears of yellow . . . voices, footsteps . . . it was hard to remember where I was, to keep my mind focused.
The door swung wide, bumping my knees and startling me to alertness. Eye-stabbing light flooded the room. “Where is she?” demanded a voice I did remember—too well.
A Tuli skidded to the floor at my feet, beams from the globe cradled in its hands racing crazily over the walls and ceiling. It had been shoved by another entering behind with the haste of the pursued.
Roraqk. His snout twisted over his shoulder—angling downward so those yellow eyes, reflecting cold white disks of light, could pin me in place. The frills along his head were flattened and gray. I cringed, curling myself into a ball, and showed my teeth in as effective a snarl as a primate could manage.
The reptile holstered his pistol, hooking one hand in his belt. His other hand, streaked with some shiny green liquid, he held pressed over a wound high on his concave chest. “s-Sswitch the bar to her wrisssts-ss,” he ordered the cowering Tuli. “Put this-ss on her.” “This-ss” was a heavy black cloak, its edges suspiciously charred. I didn’t like to think of how it came to be in the pirate’s possession.
The Tuli panted, its trio of eyes wide and focused elsewhere as it obeyed Roraqk’s command. Its stained fur smelled rank, sour with fear. Port Authority, I decided, stretching my legs as soon as they were freed. A rush of optimism gave me new strength which I kept hidden, letting the creature pull me to my feet.
Roraqk took no chances. He reached for the bar across my wrists, winding a thin glossy thread from his belt around the bar to link us together. The Tuli moaned to itself—the first vocalization I’d heard from its kind. Its eyes were closed. Both of us knew what to expect next, yet I flinched when the pirate fired his pistol and the Tuli shriveled into a smoking darkness. The globe fell and smashed, extinguishing all light in the room.
I couldn’t move—too afraid of what I might touch. A warning jerk on the thread broke my paralysis. It drew me after the pirate into the hall, and I stumbled trying to keep up with his impatient steps. Roraqk had no intention of waiting for whatever was about to happen here.
Small portlights huddled in an upper corner as if summoned then forgotten, providing a wan illumination. Groups of slaves hastened out of our way, their eyes hot with expectation, yet wary. We made it to the lift without incident, only to find it sealed.
Roraqk struck the door with a clawed fist. There were new sounds now, regular hammerings punctuated by the occasional low thud. I thought they were coming closer. “Port Authority—or Enforcers?” I asked.
The alien hissed instead of answering and, pushing me to the end of my leash, aimed his pistol at the control panel. This time the beam was concentrated into a brilliant line which sliced through the cover with ease. The disk Roraqk outlined dropped to the floor, striking with a metallic clang and roll. Roraqk compressed his clawed hand into an amazing thinness, sliding it within the revealed cavity, ignoring the white-hot edges as he worked. After several false starts, the lift door opened. “Inssside, quickly.”
Deep vibrations shook us as we rose, the lift faltering once then restarting just as my heart tried to pound its way out of my chest. Our journey was longer than my trip down with the Tulis. Sure enough, when the doors opened, we were in an office with windows overlooking a rooftop view.
And we were not alone. A large, powerfully built Human worked feverishly at a desk, stuffing the contents of a drawer into a bag. At our appearance, he snatched a deadly-looking rifle from where it lay on piles of scorched plas records, swinging the dark hole of its muzzle to cover us both.
“Is-ss that any way to greet your partner?” Roraqk said smoothly, although his own weapon remained in his hand.
The rifle lowered, though not completely. “Late partner, close-like,” the man responded, dark eyes glittering. He went past us, using one blunt-fingered hand to pull down a switch beside the lift door; the lights in the lift died. “Gas below’s on auto—you know that.” The eyes slid over to me and I shivered. There was something feline, menacing in their depths. He peered closer, as if trying to see more of my face within its heavy shadow of hood. “This belongs below, too. Dead,” the man decided. “The roust’s by outsystem Enforcers, you fool, not Port Jellies.”
Roraqk chuckled. “Let me introduce my pet-creature,” he said, at ease though the floor under our feet continued to shake with new explosions. “I call her Kisssue. You’ve told me I should keep pets-ss.”
“Pet? More like dinner.” The man shrugged callously. “Better dead, and left here. Another, ten other such pets I’ll get you later. Frat, take C-stock from your own cargo—I won’t kick about a couple.”
My flesh crawled as Roraqk’s claws closed possessively on my shoulder. “There are none like my Kisssue, s-Ssmegard. She is-ss quite unique. Don’t worry, I s-sshall take good care of her.”
What could he know about me? What had the Tulis learned? I ached to ask questions, demand answers.
“Scaly hide of yours needs care, Roraqk.” This from Smegard, his eyes smoldering in a clear threat. “Think Enex outsmarted me? Think my Tulis keep your secrets?”
Roraqk’s claws tightened punishingly. I fought the urge to evade that grip, knowing I continued to breathe solely because of the reptile’s interest in me. “This-ss dealt with Morgan of the
” He gave me a light shake that nonetheless threatened my balance.
A slow smile stretched the man’s thick lips. “Morgan.” He said the name as though tasting it. Then he scowled again, the expression better suited to his black-browed face. “Too many teeth for your profit. Not to mention his frat’n luck.”
A vicious snap of jaws. “Morgan’s-ss luck, as-ss you call it, will not keep me from eating his-ss heart!”
Smegard’s lips twisted into a sneer. “You keep wasting time here, Morgan won’t need luck. Dispose of your Kissue; help me with this. The car’s waiting below.” The Recruiter turned his broad back to us, returning to his packing.
Whether this was bravado or stupidity, I would never know, for the tip of Roraqk’s pistol raised ever-so-slightly and he fired before I could even think a warning.
“This-ss raid was-ss the lasst of your blunders-ss, mammal,” the pirate spat as he sheathed his weapon and again pressed his clawed hand against the wound in his chest. I trembled, trying to look anywhere but at the beheaded corpse as it rustled papers and toppled objects on its way to the floor. As Roraqk laughed at his own humor, spittle flung from his jaws and splashed on my cheek. I flinched as his black tongue followed to retrieve it, leaving a burning trail on my skin.
Roraqk knew his way, without hesitation activating a second hidden lift that plummeted us down. I fought the inclinations of my abused stomach and endured in numb silence. The lift settled, its door opening into a large ground-car hangar.
The conflict hadn’t reached this far, not yet. Hirelings milled about the groundcars, all armed, some wearing pieces of body armor; their expressions at the sight of us ranged from hopeful defiance to resigned fear. Roraqk called for a driver and guard as he headed toward a midsized vehicle already poised near the doors. The pirate’s orders were obeyed instantly, without question, certainly with obvious relief on the part of the chosen pair.
Smegard’s absence and Roraqk’s flight were enough for the rest. Some faded out other doors, some began to climb into groundcars. Armor was abandoned; weapons were not.
Roraqk’s guardsman dropped in beside the driver, activating a control that moved the opaque dome over our heads and locked it into place, effectively blinding us as well as hiding us from view. Our groundcar rolled through the doors decorously, pausing a moment as if waiting for a break in some traffic outside that I couldn’t see, then slipping forward and away.
I didn’t need to see out. We were heading for the shipcity—and the starships. I knew by the return of that growing pressure in my thoughts. It wasn’t my choice. I could tell that much, even if I couldn’t completely separate what was mine from its influence. And that detached, other set of thoughts cared only about the need to reach a ship, whether transported by this murderer or not. I decided glumly the decisions it forced into my mind could become serious risks to my future, assuming I had a future to risk.INTERLUDE
“Haven’t seen her.” Thel Masim’s glance at the image plate in Morgan’s hand had been brief, but he didn’t question her ability to place faces. The woman’s recall abilities were legendary, an asset to her job managing traffic into and out of the shipcity, if less valued by those trying to claim improper fees. Many underestimated the intellect behind her small gleaming eyes and confused the kindness she granted so liberally to strangers with gullibility. Morgan did neither.
“Thanks. Call me if she shows up before I lift, okay?” He peered over her ample shoulder at the screens. From this small room, Thel had access to vids at every entrance as well as those attached to each of Auord’s fleet of docking tugs. By custom, there was no surveillance equipment set up around the ships themselves. After all, many were homes as well as transport.
“What’s going on there?” Morgan pointed at the screen second to the right. Thel pulled the feed into her central viewer, enlarging it until they could both see the developing snarl in traffic.
“Query sent,” she muttered. The screens flickered from moment to moment as Thel and her partners along the ship way exchanged viewpoints. Morgan blinked his eyes, fighting a feeling of vertigo. Voices overlapped at the same time, sounding more interested than annoyed. It was the kind of job that appreciated a break in routine. “Lot of Port Jellies out.” “Looks like they’re setting up a few checkpoints.” “Gonna take a while to sort this mess out.” “Hey, those are Enforcers! What’s going on, Thel?”
“I should know?” that worthy responded, her voice definitely annoyed. “Should my number be on the list of must-calls? Does anyone expect ace behavior from the Jellies on this armpit planet?” Over her shoulder, “Clear Skies, Jason. I’ve got your tug on A-one priority.”
Morgan pocketed the image of the one he sought, resigned to the fact that between the checkpoints and the growing traffic jam, it was unlikely he’d have any luck before lift. And, Barac or no Barac, he had no intention of missing that tug. “Thanks, Thel. If she shows up, put it on my tab. Give my regards to—”
Morgan stopped at the door, “Pardon?”
“There’s your Fem.” Thel sounded smug as she keyed down the other images, brought up a close scan of a luxurious private groundcar stuck in traffic, and cut off the voice feeds from the other gates. “And not nice company she’s keeping. We all know who that ugly snout belongs to—” When there was no answer, she swiveled her chair around. Morgan was gone.
IT seemed as though only a few moments passed before we halted to await our turn to enter the main shipway. We edged forward then stopped again, the dome rising to allow the driver to confer with a trio of grim-faced Enforcers. Others stood to the side, Port Authority mostly, sending resentful looks at the backs of the three red-and-black uniformed officers beside us. Roraqk scraped one claw lightly along my wrist beneath the cloak.
I didn’t need his warning. New compulsions frantically writhed through my thoughts, overlapping into warnings of danger and fear, all aimed at the various law keepers standing so temptingly close. I couldn’t have called out to them for help. As a matter of fact, only Roraqk’s grip and some small instinct for self-preservation stopped me from trying to jump from the groundcar and run the other way.
The driver offered a handful of plas sheets with an easy smile, seemingly unaffected by the stern aspect of his interrogators. The sheets were passed to a Port Authority official who waved a hand over them dismissively before giving them back. Smegard’s preparations were thorough indeed—and undoubtedly costly.
We continued on, the dome remaining half open. Our groundcar was caught in a line of traffic, moving at a slow but steady pace which never quite came to a halt. The panic in my thoughts subsided again, leaving me wondering what other surprises the conspiracy in my head had in store.
Another, more abrupt stop slid me off the seat on to one knee. Metal and leather made whispers of sound as the driver and guardsman readied themselves. My mouth went dry; more enforcers? “Hold,” Roraqk ordered, having stood to peer over the driver’s shoulder. The resulting tug on the leash binding us together drew me up with him. “They’ve flusshed a s-ssmuggler and the traffic’s-ss waiting for the all clear. We’ll be curious-ss yet law-resspecting, jusst like thessse other good citizens-ss.”
At his order, the dome folded completely back. Our groundcar was one of about twenty similar vehicles, all stopped nose-to-tail along the shipway. The sky was already darkening, the sun a far-off smudge of red on the horizon. To one side of us, the ground dropped away sharply to the sea, the cliff edge marked by force field posts. I could smell the salt spray.
Ahead on the other side were the ranks of starships, of every size, shape, and color; their twilight shadows seeming to be all that held them to the ground, though I knew if I were closer I’d be able to see the cabling protecting each from Auord’s uncontrolled weather. The always changing shipcity they formed bound this fringe system to the rest of the galaxy. Overhead floated atmospheric transports, some already snugged against one or more individual ships to load or unload cargo, others drifting like clouds in the sea breeze, waiting their turn. Beyond reason, compulsions still tugged at me.