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Trapped on Talonque (Veronica Scott)

Posted: 28 September, 2016 at 3:16 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Release Date: August 21, 2016
Publisher: Veronica Scott
Format: Ebook
Links: AmazonFacebookAuthor’s website

Chapter One

At least you’re not dead. You can handle a headache, even one that feels like your brain is slowly beating itself to a pulp inside your skull.

A guard interrupted Nate’s stern internal lecture, poking him with a razor-sharp, gleaming spear tip. A thin line of red blood trickled down Nate’s arm, mingling with the dried remnants of similar “encouragements” suffered over the course of the five days since his ship crashed on this hellhole planet.

He checked his peripheral vision to make sure Haranda was limping along, managing to keep his balance on the road’s uneven stone paving. The way their captors had them restrained—arms bound tightly behind their backs, short metal shackles on the ankles, a chafing leather collar with a thin chain linking each man to the next at the neck—made walking a challenge. There were more prisoners at the end of the chain, locals, a few injured much more grievously than any of the offworlders but able to walk.

Stripped of their uniforms and made to wear the short kilt like all the other prisoners, Nate and his men had varying degrees of sunburn to contend with, but no serious physical impairments.

Unexpectedly, their progress stopped, and Nate crowded the local in front of him, nearly falling. Both men cursed in their respective languages, jerking apart as far as the thin neck chain allowed.

“What the seven hells—”

“Look ahead,” Thom Curran said behind him. “I guess we know where we’re going now.”

Nate stared. The road had been curving uphill for the past few hours. Now he stood in a spot where the pavement widened beyond its average span of twenty feet, becoming a circle. Sheer cliffs rose above and fell precipitously away below the round platform. Across a wide ravine lay more heights, the pale stones of the road ascending in lazy curves and disappearing at the top, guarded at the crest by pillars or statues too far away to make out in detail.

And to get across the ravine—a swaying nightmare of a rope bridge, easily three hundred feet long. The cables appeared to be a mix of wool and plant fiber, tightly woven into massive supports suspended from towering masonry structures on either side of the chasm. The guards snarled orders, shoving their prisoners to the side of the platform against the cliffs, ordering them to sit.

“Have to wait our turn, I guess,” Thom said, rubbing one ankle as he and Nate watched the bridge sway and twist while five locals, each leading a blindfolded riding animal, worked their way carefully across the span in single file, coming from the other side.

“At least we can see the damn thing is sturdy enough to hold that bunch, so it ought to hold us.” Nate craned awkwardly to check on Haranda once more. “Doing okay, kid?”

The young pilot trainee swallowed convulsively and nodded before averting his gaze. The death of the more senior pilot and the events since the crash had left him in a precarious mental state.

Grateful for the chance to rest, Nate shrugged and watched the slow progress of the group on the bridge. Their captors had set a rapid pace, as if afraid to miss a deadline for their arrival at the ultimate destination.

Number one rule in the Sectors Special Forces—don’t get up, close and personal with the residents of an unknown planet prior to a full eval, linguistic analysis, detailed observation from orbit…yeah, he’d managed to break about every regulation. Nate suspected he and his two companions were going to pay for the lapses in the near future. The Lords of Space threw the dice for a man and then left him to play the game out on his own. No help was coming from the Sectors. The ship and its passengers had probably been written off as lost by now.

“Are my eyes giving out, or is the sky going a little darker all the sudden?” Thom’s query broke into Nate’s reverie.

Squinting against the glare of the too-hot primary sun, he said, “A triple eclipse?” He risked one more quick glance. Three moons of varying dimensions were slowly edging their way onto the big, glaring disk of this planet’s oversize sun. Nate lowered his eyes, checking the reactions of the other prisoners and the guards, all of whom were exhibiting various signs of unease. Many were mouthing chants or prayers. The eclipse increased the agitation of the officer leading their group. He advanced to the lip of the bridge and yelled at the oncoming cavalry, unmistakably exhorting them to move faster.

The last of the five riders cleared the bridge and removed the blindfold on his animal. Remounting, the squad thundered past, heading in the direction Nate and his companions had come from, the shod hooves of the horselike animals throwing sparks from the flat paving stones.

“Chika, chika!” the guards shouted, prodding the prisoners to their feet and into a rough line.

“Chika. Yeah, right, whatever you say,” Nate muttered as the guard walked past him.

“I sure miss the hypno briefing on the damn language.” Thom echoed Nate’s frustration. “Not that we’re exactly on a mission, or that the Sectors has a translator for this gibber.”

“I think I got ‘chika’ translated, after five days of them screaming it at us. Means jump and don’t wait to ask how high.” Nate scrambled to his feet along with the rest of the long column.

The prisoners were strung together in chains of eight. The two groups ahead of Nate’s moved out, clearing the bridge and marching up the mountain as he set foot on the woven structure. He couldn’t help but admire the ingenious way the bridge was constructed of dark blue and yellow ropes woven together and triple-knotted tightly at regular intervals. Narrow boards had been inserted crosswise through the bottom set of ropes, making it necessary to step carefully from one to the next. Nate wished his hands were free so he could grasp the waist-high side ropes for extra stability. He had no fear of heights, and as he came onto the bridge, he glanced down. So far below that it was nothing but a narrow, shiny ribbon, the inevitable river flowed, its roar faint at this height. At the pull from the chain at his collar as the men in front of him stepped onward, Nate lifted his gaze, watching his step on the uneven, shifting floorboards.

He heard snatches of low conversation between several of the men chained in front of him. Despite the fact he didn’t understand more than a few words of the local language, Nate tensed. The tone of the hasty whispers suggested action about to take place.

Bad place to stage a rebellion.

The man at the head of his set of eight prisoners yelled a defiant oath or a curse and threw himself off the right side of the bridge, tilting effortlessly over the rope and falling, taking the next two men with him in the blink of an eye. Man number four, directly in front of Nate, evidently wasn’t part of the suicide pact, or lost his nerve, because as the others fell, the prisoner tried to pull back, bracing himself against the guard ropes. The chains and gravity threatened to take Nate, Thom, Haranda and the last prisoner behind him to the bottom of the ravine as well.

The prisoner’s neck snapped with an audible crack, echoing eerily across the ravine, and his lifeless body jackknifed over the ropes. The other two men who’d already fallen were choking as the deadweight of the original suicide jumper pulled the leather collars taut. The bridge tipped sideways under Nate’s feet from the unbalanced load. The ropes creaked ominously. Thom braced on the bridge behind him, trying to keep his feet without strangling Nate. The guards were shouting, trying to work their way along the bridge to the spot where the suicide attempt erupted.

Suddenly, the dead prisoner’s center of gravity altered imperceptibly in response to the motion of the swaying bodies below. He fell off the bridge in graceful slow motion. The neck chain whipped taut on Nate, cutting off his air. The thin chain snapped off the thicker loop fastened to the collar at the base of Nate’s throat, flying hundreds of feet into the ravine with the four dead men. The jagged end of the chain cut the underside of Nate’s chin as it whipped past him. He doubled over the rope side rail, its knots digging into his stomach muscles. He could feel the pressure on his neck from the chain binding him to the sergeant and was thankful for it, steadying him even as it threatened to choke off his air.

“Take it real slow,” Thom said.

Nate straightened carefully and shuffled his feet on the floorboard, retreating until he stood in the middle of the bridge. His head spun from lack of oxygen, and his peripheral vision flickered.

The guards grabbed his arms, urging him forward. The men supported him the rest of the way across the bridge, Thom and the others remaining on the string dragged behind. Nate was allowed to collapse onto the paved circle platform on the other side, bringing the others to their knees as he did so.

He lay on his side, chest heaving as he struggled to draw enough air into his lungs and recover from the near miss. The remaining strings of prisoners came across the bridge without further incident and were led along the curving road. The entire train of prisoners disappeared from sight by the time the guards decided Nate must be recovered and yanked him to his feet. The officer in charge eyed Nate for a long moment, fingering the broken link on his collar thoughtfully. Then he spun on his heel, yelling the now familiar order to move out.

“Chika! Chika!”

Nate and his companions toiled up the curving road to the crest of the hill. As he passed between the guardian statues, Nate studied the one on his right. Standing double his height, it was a crude representation of a warrior. Nate realized the deity clutched a braided skein of scalps in each of its four hands, from which were suspended eight bleeding heads. Huge clawed feet trod on a carpet of bones and skulls.

“Huitlani.” The prisoner at the end of their shortened chain gave a name to the horror. Nate turned his head and met the man’s eyes. The captive, Atletl, spat at the statue and let loose a string of what sounded like curses as he walked between the statues. This defiance brought him harsh blows from the officer in charge, and Atletl fell silent under the onslaught.

The road widened substantially and became more crowded the closer the column came to the city on the plain beyond the ridge. Foot and vehicle traffic proceeded in both directions. The prisoners were kept to the edge of the pavement and given no chance to rest or slacken their pace.

“Always in a hurry on this damn planet, ain’t they?” Thom made his complaint after a renewed burst of prodding from the soldiers.

“The eclipse is ending,” Nate said, taking a rapid glance at the giant sun. “Too bad—my headache was doing better.”

“Next time we evac a crashed ship on an uncharted world, I’ll be sure to grab the headclear for you.” Thom assumed a tone of mock deference.

“I’m surprised it’s not prominently featured in the regs.” Nate managed a tired grin. A good sign if Thom had enough energy left to joke.

There was a brief halt at the gate to the city, while the officer in charge held an animated discussion with the guards and then the squad was waved through, moving deeper into the city. The pace slowed, due to the throngs of people clogging the streets.

“We seem to be a curiosity.” Nate watched how the crowds parted and people stared and muttered together as he and the others marched past.

The guards didn’t appreciate their talking, jabbing at them with the butts of their spears, so Nate fell silent. A huge, walled compound appeared to be the destination, its guardstands adorned with green and black flags bearing a stylized bird of prey. The prisoners were marched along the base of the wall for a few hundred yards before coming to an open gate guarded by an alert cadre of warriors and two more horrific representations of Huitlani.

“Bad sign.” Thom jerked his head sideways at the statue nearest him.

The guards hustled them into the compound, entering a narrow, whitewashed corridor beyond the gate.

Suddenly, Nate emerged from the confined space, stumbling into a brightly lit chamber. He stopped short, blinking furiously at the stark sunlight. Even in the late afternoon, this no-name planet’s hot white star was too harsh once the multiple eclipse by the trio of moons concluded. The light made Nate’s headache flare in a wave of hot pain across his forehead.

As he blinked, eyes watering, trying to adjust his eyesight, he realized he stood at the edge of a throng of what had to be the upper crust of this planet’s society. Dressed more richly than anyone he’d seen so far, the crowd was a sea of color in jewel-tone robes. The men wore elaborate feather headdresses rising easily a yard into the air and heavy, broad gold and silver collars lavishly set with jewels. The women wore filmy, pastel robes and more gold and jewels, casting rainbows in the sun’s glare. Drawing back as if afraid to touch the newcomers, the nobles whispered and pointed.

Hampered by the chains, Nate walked through the courtyard as best he could, ringed by the military escort, whose demeanor took on a certain strut of pride. Out of the glare of late afternoon sunlight at the far end of the room, Nate made out the details of a raised dais and several ornately carved thrones. Trained to observe details and build a strategic assessment, he tried to concentrate despite his raging headache and figure out what he might be dealing with here. Was there any possibility of escape or bettering the situation for his men and himself?

Too many guards, alert for a move from us.

He strove to relax his muscles, give off a nonthreatening air, hoping to lull the soldiers into overconfidence. Give Thom and him a fair chance and they’d put up a fight. The chain dragging at his ankles reminded him of the overwhelming odds.

The larger throne was occupied by a man with a truly awe-inspiring scarlet and black headdress that rose from a golden crown. Leaning forward as the prisoners came closer, this personage clutched a thick, golden staff, a carved bird of prey adorning the top. The man’s face reminded Nate of the bird—cruel, harsh, deeply lined, with glittering black eyes. Jagged red scars ran across his forehead and left cheek.

The guards shoved Nate and the others to their knees, adding painful bruises to his already plentiful crop. A gruff command from the figure on the throne had the guards yanking Nate and his companions back to their feet.

Leaning on the staff, the official descended the three steps from the dais. Two women dressed in somber black robes followed him. Nate stood at attention while the noble and the women circled him and his men. Silently, the man studied the prisoners. Chattering between themselves excitedly, the women waved heavy feather fans. Each lady had ebony black hair slicked back in an elaborate chignon, a heavily painted face, glittering gems set at the ears and long diamond-crusted pendants between generous breasts. Heavy floral and spice perfume assaulted his nose as the pair examined him, making him long for a breath of fresh air.

A younger woman in translucent pale green and lavender robes stood off to the side, eyeing the prisoners curiously, but timidly, as if afraid to come any closer, or to interfere with the trio. Nate kept glancing at her because she was in such contrast to the other women. Her dress was encrusted with colored bead work in floral patterns, but at the hem was a swirling depiction of blue and scarlet serpents. Her brown hair hung loose, save for two dainty braids framing her face. She’d no jewelry, no feather fan or other accessories. Unaccountably, Nate had the feeling she was the only person in the room sympathetic to their plight.

But obviously powerless to help.

Dismissing the lady as a possible ally, he focused on the lively discussion off to the side.

The ruler snapped question after question at the officer who’d first captured them. Nate detected a family resemblance between the noble and the man he was grilling, but the man in charge didn’t appear satisfied with any of the answers he received, kinsman or no. In five days and nights of captivity, Nate had picked up a smattering of the local language but not nearly enough to follow the rapid question-and-answer session.

A new woman arrived, emerging from the palace and walking to join the noble, placing her arm possessively around his waist. Head tilted imperiously, her white-painted lips set in a thin, straight line, she listened to the discussion in silence. Nate met her eyes briefly before she contemptuously tossed her head and centered her attention on the gesticulating officer. She took a few steps forward, one hand raised to silence the ongoing briefing. Standing in front of Nate, forcing the protesting officer to move aside, she cupped Nate’s chin with one hand, nothing gentle about the gesture. Her long fingers were tipped like talons, with long, curved, purple-gray painted nails resting on his cheek with a clearly implied threat. He glared at her, attempting to communicate his defiance through his expression and stance. Still holding his chin, she asked the officer a question, which he hastily answered. The woman released Nate’s chin but ran one hand through his hair, caressingly, down the back of his neck and onto his bare chest. Her touch burned his skin. He wondered if she had poison painted on her nails.

As if impatient with her inspection, the ruler fired a question at Nate in a dialect unlike anything he’d heard on this planet. Shaking his head, he said, “Sorry, not a language I speak.”

There was an indrawn hiss of breath from those closest to the man in charge. He recoiled a few inches, wide-eyed, mouth open in excitement. Fear. Why would anyone be afraid of us, especially chained the way we are? How do I use this?

The woman stalked in a circle, studying Thom and Harada, peering closely at their faces. When she came to Atletl, she laughed, shaking her head. Taking the officer by the elbow, she engaged him in rapid conversation.

Atletl stood motionless, his demeanor proud. Obviously, he understood the discussion regarding their fate, but whether it was good or ill, he gave no sign. Nor did he speak.

Finally, the soldier grabbed Atletl’s left arm and tugged the prisoner sideways a few steps, imploring the haughty noblewoman to examine him more closely. Nate tried to see what the item of interest might be. A tattoo on Atletl’s well-muscled bicep in the shape of a small, stylized reptilian creature in blue and scarlet inks was the focus of attention. The symbol matched the decoration on the young priestess’s dress. Rival deities perhaps?

“T’naritza,” the officer said insistently, tapping one finger on the tattoo. He waved his other hand to take in Nate and his men, including them in this designation.

Elegant eyebrows raised, the woman nodded. She spoke to the man in charge, and the two of them paced hand in hand to the thrones, seating themselves. Chin resting on his fist, the ruler took a pinch of a pale green substance from a platter at his side and chewed lazily as he studied Nate, Haranda and Thom for a long moment. Raising the staff, the dignitary made a lazy circle in the air above his head, a gesture of dismissal accompanied by one curt syllable from fleshy lips. The crowd filed silently out of the courtyard.

“Wish I had a clue what they want from us,” Nate said, more to break the uncanny silence than for any other reason.

“Maybe we don’t really want to know.” Thom straightened. “These primitive planets have pretty unpleasant ways of dealing with unexpected guests.”

The black-clad ladies—the ones Nate thought of as birds of prey—conferred with the ruler. Face set in a disapproving frown, the lavender lady listened. After issuing a flurry of orders to the women, the queen gathered her skirts and departed. As she left, the noble rose, striding to the rear of the dais. He shoved aside the impressive black leather curtains, ruthlessly crumpling an embossed mountain scene, and disappeared. The guards pushed the prisoners to the rear of the dais and through the same curtains. Nate found himself in another narrow, whitewashed corridor. The guards administered rough encouragement to pick up the pace and follow the ruler more closely. The three women trailed along in the rear, the two in black whispering together unhappily.

This new corridor twisted and turned. After two moments or so, the procession branched off into a smaller side hall, dead-ending in a chamber lit by sluggishly burning torches.

“Must be deep inside the building by now,” Haranda said. “We’ve been descending steadily since we left the main corridor. These walls are like geological layers, remnants of older and older buildings. Typical, to place new construction on top of the original structures. Like going back in time.”

Thanks for the archaeological footnote, kid. Wish any of that analysis would help me figure out a way for us to escape. Nate blinked and focused on the wall in front of them. As his overworked pupils expanded in the soothing balm of relatively dim light and the throbbing pain in his head eased, he perceived the wall had an elaborate set of designs carved into it. The two women in black elbowed their way past the prisoners and guards and chanted a sonorous set of phrases over and over. The noble walked to the wall and began placing his hands on various portions of the carving in a highly stylized, ritualistic manner in time with the rise and fall of the chanting. Making a double fist, he pressed on a portion of the carving.

A chiming sound emanated from everywhere. A green glow shimmered over the whole party for a long moment. Fat snakes of pure light crawled over them all and winked out, reappearing elsewhere in the narrow space. The guards flinched apprehensively, although the ruler and all three women appeared comfortable with the phenomenon. They’ve obviously done this before. Nate blinked, flinching involuntarily as the green lights crawled over his face and scalp. He realized his headache was gone.

“What the—”

The carved white wall slid aside.

Under pressure from the guards, he went farther downward, through a narrow, sloping, nearly pitch-black corridor. Nate wished for more room to maneuver, sure he and Thom could take the local men with a small amount of luck, but no chance presented itself.

The narrow corridor opened into a bigger chamber, at first also only dimly lit, but Nate realized the light was increasing gradually, subtly. A smooth, darkly gleaming black stone wall faced them. About seven feet high and ten feet wide, it was translucent, but squint though he might, Nate couldn’t make out what lay behind.

After clearing his throat, the ruler chanted three words, trying to artificially pitch his voice to an unnatural high note. When nothing happened, he and the two black-clad women exchanged resigned glances before he made another attempt, enunciating more clearly in an ear-splitting falsetto.

Nothing.

Wheeling to his right, the man grabbed the elbow of the young woman in lavender, shoving her to the front, inches from the wall blocking their way.

She licked her thin lips nervously and launched into a chant. The syllables sounded the same, but her voice gave them clarity and a musical pitch, showing how far off the mark the ruler’s attempt must have been from the required tones.

The stone door vibrated, emitting a musical hum, and then the black stone barrier vanished as if it had never been there in all its tons.

Nate gasped at the sight before him.

He stood on the edge of a high-tech chamber out of place on a primitive world such as this one. Ringing the room were strange displays, blinking lights, roving green beams, unknown instruments. The sophistication of the technology was well beyond anything the Sectors had achieved, let alone the dwellers of this planet. Nate spared only a second to glance at these wonders. His attention was caught and held by what occupied the center of a large alcove directly across the room.

The cubicle was lined in shiny metallic material and from the floor rose a graceful pedestal of the same material, topped with a thin platform at waist level. Neatly arranged on a layer of dark purple padding lay a woman, apparently asleep. She certainly wasn’t from this planet, nor any world known to Nate. This mysterious female had ivory skin with the palest of lavender undertones in her cheeks.

“I’ll be moon-damned.” Thom’s attention was riveted on the sleeper as well. “An Ancient Observer?”

“Can’t be—no one’s ever found actual remains,” Haranda said from the other side. “Although this room certainly suggests a high level of technology, it’s not AO. Another sophisticated, highly advanced forerunner civilization. The galaxy is a big place after all.” Roused from his state of funk, he studied the walls, apparently more interested in the devices and displays than in the woman. “I minored in AO studies at the Academy.”

“I don’t think she’s a well-preserved corpse.” Nate couldn’t take his gaze from her, not even to watch what their captors were doing now. He took himself sharply to task for the lapse. What if we’ve been brought here as a sacrifice? He had to be mentally prepared to fight, not gawk at a pretty girl. But the next moment he found himself studying her again, unable to keep himself from indulging in another view.

The woman was tall, probably his equal in height, definitely humanoid. She lay pillowed on her own hair, a thick, sweeping fall of glorious blue mixed with amethyst purple, set here and there with twinkling jewels. From his location across the room, he couldn’t see whether she was breathing, yet he had a definite sense of a living presence.

Her clothing was a simple, silvery white and lavender sheath, like finely woven metallic thread had been spun to make the dress. Thin jeweled straps held the garment at her shoulders. The finely pleated fabric clung to her curves sensuously. She lay on her back, arms stretched out a little on each side, her graceful, six-fingered hands spread open on the cushion. She wore no jewelry save for an elaborate bracelet on her left wrist, studded with colorful stones whose facets caught and amplified the lights in the main room.

Grimacing, the woman arched her spine as if in pain, moving her head on the pillow restlessly.

“What the—” Nate swiveled his head and saw the noble flipping small jeweled medallions set into one of the wall panels.

Apparently remaining unconscious, the woman struggled to raise her hands from the bedding, her face contorted. A harsh chiming emanated from the walls, as if warning against whatever procedure he’d initiated. Undeterred despite a second sirenlike sound joining the cacophony, the noble finished his task with a satisfied grunt. The black-clad priestesses seemed to want him to stop, one going so far as to touch his sleeve before being impatiently shaken off.

The lavender-clad lady cowered at the far wall, covering her ears and crouching pathetically.

Nate’s head suddenly filled with fire, and then icy cold replaced the heat, a piercing pain shooting through his entire nervous system from the top of his brain, along his spine and out to peripheral nerve endings. He fell to his knees, dragging the other three prisoners with him, exclaiming curses in their surprise. Barely hanging on to consciousness, Nate fought the alternating hot and cold waves and the associated pain in his head. Dazzling streaks and multicolored pinwheels obscured his vision, staying even though he screwed his eyes tightly shut.

“Sicondame sliquon…” came a deep, female voice from all around them.

Nate raised his head, eyes tearing, staring at the woman on the table. Is that her voice? How can she sound so calm under apparent torture?

The alarms and klaxons abruptly shut off. Nate’s ears rang with the aftereffects of the discordant noises.

Hands on his hips, the noble nodded and made a declaration to the priestesses in a tone conveying satisfaction.

Nate shook his head again as the guards impatiently yanked him to his feet. The soldiers tugged at him and the other three prisoners, indicating their time in the chamber of the sleeping lady was at an end. He twisted to catch one last glimpse of her in the gradually fading light.

She opened her eyes, looked directly at him, and in his head he heard two words.

I’m sorry.

* * *

“She must have been lying there for centuries, maybe thousands of years, judging from the multiple layers of building remnants we passed through on our downward trek. You expect us to believe she spoke to you? And apologized in Basic?” Haranda’s voice conveyed his skepticism. “Captain, whatever equipment was running in the room obviously affected you—”

“I know what I heard.” Nate decided to ignore the edge of insubordination in the cadet pilot’s voice in the interest of discussing the phenomenon. “The private communication was the same female voice speaking out loud in the room, so what I heard in my head had to be her.”

“Maybe close to a language you were hypnotrained for on a past mission?” Thom asked. “I admit this local stuff don’t activate any of my stored files.”

Nate shook his head. “Basic. She spoke Basic to me. Now how could an alien woman entombed here all this time know Basic?”

Thom shrugged. “I got no answers. She’s a mystery stashed in a puzzle box, but we don’t exactly have the luxury of studying her. We gotta concentrate on our own problems. Better get some rest. No telling what new surprise they’ll have for us in the morning. Are you going to finish your bowl of mush?”

“No, you’re welcome to it.” Nate pushed the offending red clay bowl along the stony floor to Thom, straining against the chains binding him to the wall. They were in a big room with enough space for fifty more captives without crowding. The only light came through widely spaced, narrow slits in the wall near the ceiling as the sun set.

Nate sighed and tried to get comfortable, leaning against the rough stone wall. At least his headache was gone, possibly cured by the restorative effect of the few crumbs of dinner, or the mildly alcoholic beverage served with it. Nate drank his fair share once he realized it was an intoxicant, however low a dose. Anything to ward off a rebound of the pounding in his head. Not to mention the excruciating pain of returning circulation in his arms once he’d been freed from the restrictive bindings and locked into a looser set of chains attached to the prison wall.

Battered and bruised, he drifted into a troubled sleep.

* * *

He stood wreathed in gray-green mists coiling around him like the ghosts of snakes before falling away to reveal the mysterious subterranean room deep under the palace. He faced the sleeping woman. Finding himself unrestrained, Nate descended the three stairs and walked across the chamber until he stubbed his toe against an invisible but potent barrier. Trying to reach through or past this obstacle, Nate saw his hands outlined in pale green light. He shoved harder. If he could just reach her, wake her, ask her a few pointed questions… As if sensing his efforts, she moved her head on the mattress and opened her eyes, revealing dark lavender irises flecked with gold.

“I am sorry,” she said, clear as day, in Basic.

But no, Nate realized, he heard the words in his mind, not with his ears. Her lips moved, but not to shape the syllables he heard.

“Sarbordon thinks you and I are of the same people. Therefore, what he wants lies outside your power to provide,” she said, as if the piece of confusing information would help him navigate the perilous situation.

“Why are you sorry?” Nate stayed with her first words to him. “You’ve done nothing to harm us.”

“I pity anyone trapped here on this cursed planet. The king will sacrifice you to his hungry gods when you don’t produce the miracles he expects. Demands. I—I didn’t tell him the truth when he asked.” Brow furrowed, she studied Nate’s face. Biting her lower lip, she said, “Honesty on my part would have brought instant death for you. He believes you’re my father’s warriors, come to rescue me, so I agreed with his conclusion. I said you were also sent to retrieve certain possessions. He’s desperate to acquire the marvels my father wielded. My deception may give you time, perhaps a chance to save yourselves.” She studied him from head to toe, and her lips curved into a slight smile. “You have the attitude of a warrior, one able to survive. You must play the game.” After a moment, she averted her gaze, but Nate still heard her next words. “Sarbordon will bring you here again if you earn the privilege. If you can survive to that point, I may have a plan, a chance for you to seize freedom. I can’t promise.”

He was woozy, possibly an aftereffect of the wine with dinner. Maybe the drink had been laced with a primitive drug. His powers of concentration were affected, and frustration with his uncharacteristic lack of focus built. “What’s your name?”

This vision he was having was dangerously fascinating, and he wished it were real. No one had ever even seen a representation of a living Ancient Observer, much less conversed with one. He accepted Haranda’s educated assessment that she wasn’t a member of the mysterious race of galactic forerunners from a million years ago, but the way her chamber was encapsulated deep in the palace, as if the building had grown organically to house her, spoke of centuries, if not millennia, passing since she was placed in her high-tech prison. The equipment must have kept her alive, but why was she here in the first place?

The incongruity of trying to solve her puzzle while his life and the lives of his men hung in the balance made him shake his head. This was one hell of a dream, built on his fascination with her earlier in the day.

“We’re not dreaming.” Seizing on his unspoken thought, she denied his conclusion scornfully, staring at him with wide-eyed contempt. “I dream only of death. We’re communicating. Perhaps your people are too primitive for the concept, fallen from the sky or not.”

She was fading in front of his eyes, the edges of the scene going fuzzy and black. Nate focused on the pale oval of her face. “Tell me your name.” He wanted the conversation to continue, intent on coaxing her to keep her eyes open. He feared when she slept, his dream would end.

“These fools call me T’naritza, the Sleeping Goddess.” The woman’s tone held disdain and dislike. “It will do—”

“Tell me your real name.” If there was any chance this encounter was real, rather than a dream, he wanted to make a connection with her, convert her view of them from unfortunate beings to be pitied into allies. He’d clearly lost ground with her when he called their link a dream. She might represent a slim chance of escape. Apparently, she’d already interceded for them to a limited extent.

His use of his command voice to issue an order brought her back for a second from the brink of nodding off. Blinking, she focused on Nate’s face. “What will my name do for you, unfortunate one?”

“We’re both captives. We should be friends. Is a mere name so much to ask? I’m Nate Reilly.”

There was silence while her eyelids flickered heavily, like those of a sleepy child. The curling lashes brushed her cheeks as her eyes closed, then opened briefly. She sighed. “Bithia. My name of birth is Bithia. But a name has no magic to help you—”

It was a whisper floating into his mind at the same instant the dream ended. Nate jerked upright, startled awake by the abrupt loss of the images beguiling him. Thom grunted, shifting uneasily on the rancid straw serving as bedding, but didn’t waken. Haranda snored.

Eyes gleaming in the dark, Atletl watched him in the dim moonlight, a strangely satisfied expression on his face. He pointed at Nate and then indicated the tattoo on his arm. Nate recalled how fascinated the ruler and the women had been by the man’s inked artwork earlier. “T’naritza,” he said with a nod.

Nate settled against the wall, determined not to examine the recent dream too closely.

“Bithia,” he murmured, pleased by the sound of her name. Assuming he’d experienced a form of actual mind-to-mind communication, then her instant decision to lie on their behalf had bought precious time, maybe even a chance to escape—Nate couldn’t argue with her choice. Trying to think of how to leverage the tiny bits of information he now had, he fell asleep again.

Chapter Two

In the morning, Nate roused from a deep, dreamless state when the guards crashed the door open. There were more soldiers this morning, lined up across the room, at ease against the opposite wall, not bothering the prisoners. The sweet-faced priestess with the braids came in, dressed today in pale green with touches of lavender at the collar and hem. Followed by two servants, she supervised the serving of hot, steaming mush into the four bowls. Each prisoner received a small cup of water, a hard roll and two pieces of fruit as well.

“Generous this morning, aren’t they?” Thom sniffed at the steaming mush and made a face. “Hope we can eat this stuff.”

“Scans showed this planet to be within the acceptable ranges.” Haranda bit into a purple fruit dripping juice. “If the locals can eat it, we probably can too. Mmm, tangy.”

“Food poisoning wouldn’t be my preferred way off this rock.” Nate searched for an unbruised section of the fruit on his tray. “Maja—thank you,” he said to the priestess as she handed him a roll.

She inclined her head graciously and shyly, the two braids falling across her cheeks. She unleashed a breathless explanation, of which Nate understood only the word T’naritza.

“We’ve got to get up to speed on this language,” he said, gazing speculatively at Atletl, who was flirtatiously exchanging words at great length with the lady until a guard intervened. “I’m thinking he’s going to have to do emergency tutoring here.”

“Didn’t hear him volunteer.” Thom took a heaping serving of mush. “Don’t they have eggs on this damn planet? All those bird feathers yesterday, you’d think the cook would serve eggs.”

Ignoring the banter over food, Nate said, “He’s linked with us now, one way or the other. I’m hoping he’s a smart enough guy to recognize the situation and want to be useful.” He looked at his partially eaten piece of fruit and winced, setting the rough wooden plate aside. The idea of eating more overripe fruit made his stomach heave, but the hard roll and the cooked cereal went down well enough. He felt slightly hungover, but thankfully the headache was only a dull echo of yesterday’s monster.

The guards were impatient, talking among themselves and checking fitfully on the prisoners’ progress on their rations. The squad leader waited until Nate and his men had eaten most of their breakfast. Then he issued a flurry of orders resulting in the four men each being locked into a new set of chains that allowed more mobility than the ones they’d endured since falling into captivity. While the new shackles were a definite improvement in comfort over yesterday’s, the design was secure against easy escape.

The priestess watched this with a faint air of sadness on her face. She was definitely not in accord with how the prisoners were being treated. Where exactly did she fit into the whole scheme of things? Could she be an ally? Seeing him watching her, she flashed him a quick smile and then left, taking her servants with her.

“Something’s up,” Nate said as he and his men were herded into the hall. “Maybe we have to start earning our keep today?”

“Where did our guardian priestess go?” Thom checked the corridor in both directions, but she and her two companions were gone from sight.

“Celixia.” Atletl took Nate by surprise with his pronouncement. He made mock motions of braiding hair. “Celixia.”

“Well, we’re learning one thing at a time here—guess the good witch is Celixia,” Thom said as he shuffled through the corridor next to Nate. “Wonder if he knows what she wants with us?”

“Maybe we’ll find out,” Nate said.

The next event on the agenda was an unchained, closely guarded plunge into a cold, communal bathing pool and a change of clothes. Their dusty, tattered uniforms and Atletl’s blue kilt were taken away by a servant while they were toweling off. Another brought four identical piles of garments, placing a set at each prisoner’s feet.

“Let’s see what the fashionable prisoner wears to the palace. Thom held up a serviceable gray sleeveless tunic and a pair of loose pants, loincloth and sandals. “Oh man, harsh, like this stuff is made out of tree bark.”

“Woven plant fibers most likely.” Nate flipped his new shirt over, preparing to pull it over his head, and paused, fingering a large symbol painted on the front in glaring red pigment. “What do you imagine this stands for?”

“Not going to blend into the crowd with this, are we?” Thom plucked at the symbol on his. “Mine probably stands for extra-large.” He winked.

“My guess is more along the lines of ‘poor dumb fools too stupid not to get captured in the first five moments on the planet.’” Nate’s reply was good-natured. Food, a bath and more favorable treatment gave him hope for opportunities to figure out an escape. Their captors might grow lax.

“All that in one symbol?” Thom asked. “Elegant language on this planet.”

“Will you two shut up?” Haranda yelled at them. “Stop it. Who cares what the damn symbol means? Big tough Special Forces operators, cracking jokes all the time. Well, this isn’t funny in any respect I can see—”

“You’re way out of line,” Thom said, moving closer to the cadet. “You think I’m getting on your nerves? You ain’t seen anything yet. Keep bitching and moaning, flyboy. You and the late Jurgens got us into this damn mess in the first place.”

Nate cut the sergeant off with a shake of his head. “I’ve had enough of your defeatist attitude,” he said, admonishing the young pilot. “We aren’t going to get out of this situation by giving up and making it easy on these people to slaughter us. You have to keep your spirits good and your eyes open. Be observant, watch for anything we can use, an edge, a way to get the better of—”

“So knowing the meaning of this one lousy symbol will set us free? I think the damn alien machinery in the basement played with your mind. Sir.”

Nate and Thom exchanged glances. The stress of their captivity was adversely affecting Haranda, and his precarious mental state could endanger them all at a critical moment.

But before Nate could call Haranda to order again, he hung his head. “I’m sorry, sir, it’s just I never expected anything like this to happen, not to me.” His voice scaled higher on the last word, but Nate decided to ignore the hint of hysteria. He reached over and punched the younger man’s shoulder.

“At least you got us to the surface in one piece. Stick with us, and we’ll get you offworld again, I promise.” Having donned the loincloth, Nate pulled on the loose pants, tied the rope belt and started working on the fastenings of the sandals.

“Yeah, been through worse any number of times,” Thom chimed in, recognizing his cue, as Nate knew he would.

“This type of situation is the reason I didn’t join the damn ground troops,” Haranda said, kicking at his pile of clothing. “Survey duty was supposed to be easier—observe the planets, take measurements, stay out of trouble with locals.”

“Don’t believe what the recruiters tell you, son.” While delivering the belated advice, Thom rolled his eyes at Nate.

Not too surprising to find Special Forces and Survey weren’t on the same page. Are we ever? He and Thom would do everything in their power to bring Haranda through this catastrophic, unintended contact mission in one piece. “Better hurry getting dressed,” he said to the pilot. “Before our minders get impatient.”

The guards hadn’t paid too much attention to all this byplay between the three Sectors soldiers while they were dressing. Haranda hastened to pull on his new clothes. Already done, Atletl leaned on the wall, arms folded, listening to Nate, Thom and Haranda. His attention flicked from face to face, as if trying to assess the men he’d been thrown together with, since he was apparently to live or die as they did.

The guards locked the chains onto each prisoner carefully, as if expecting resistance. Nate calculated the odds, given the large squad of soldiers surrounding them this morning, and decided this wasn’t the time to make a break.

Nate and his men were escorted into the main corridor. Bearing to the right, the group made good time through endless hallways. He kept a mental map so he could find his way through these corridors if ever given a chance. The excursion took them a long way from the cellblock.

Emerging into blazing sunlight, he found himself at the top level of a huge natural amphitheater. The place was filling with chattering, excited people, although no one ventured into the area where the prisoners were directed to sit. Nate took his seat on a hard stone bench with an unobstructed view of a rectangular playing field. The walls were lined in smooth stone, red veined against dark green and black. There were five small openings in the wall opposite them, set in no obvious pattern, spaced about fifteen yards apart. One was low on the wall, three close to the top and the fifth at knee height at the other end. Nate judged the entire court was probably seventy yards long. He leaned over and found an identical set of openings in the wall below him.

Play the game, she said. Had Bithia meant a real game?

The crowd was restless. Occasionally, someone would cheer or chant, which would be taken up by others and then slowly die out.

Thom nudged Nate in the ribs.“Over there on the other side. Isn’t that our pal from yesterday? The head honcho himself?”

“Sarbordon.” Nate filled in the ruler’s name from his dream. Ignoring Thom’s puzzled glance, he stared across the sandy court at the ruler settling himself in the center of a royal enclosure that featured more elaborate seats. The noble raised his arms, and the crowd screamed approval.

“Guess we’re in the cheap seats,” Thom said as he surveyed their side of the court, where all the fans were dressed in clothing not much fancier than their own prison garb.

Haranda touched his arm. “These people are keeping us alive to make us watch games? What’s your guess, sir?”

“No idea. Beats dying.” Nate shrugged. “I hope we don’t have to sit in this damn sun too long. Gives me one hell of a headache.”

“There’s our Celixia.” Thom pointed across the playing field.

“Along with the bitch queen herself and her attendant birds of prey. I wish to hell I knew where we fit in, where this is going,” Nate said. Annoyed at his lack of usable intel, he assessed Atletl, waving jauntily in an apparent attempt to get Celixia’s attention. “I think he knows what’s going on, but this language barrier between us is a definite issue.”

“As long as he doesn’t panic, I guess I won’t worry either,” Thom said.

“Good plan.”

“Here come the players.” Haranda gestured at the far end of the field below.

The ensuing game was exciting, engaging Nate’s attention despite the circumstances. Opposing teams of four players each strove to capture a black leather ball as it shot at random, apparently, from one of the wall openings. The men fought to ram the sphere into one of the openings on the other side of the court. The other team did its best to steal the ball and inflict maximum damage on the other players in the process. Violence and aggression met with roaring approval from the crowd.

The game progressed rapidly, limited to three scores. Whenever one team or the other managed to get three balls into the wall despite the defenders’ best efforts, the proceedings came to a halt. The winning team paraded around the court, arms held high, accepting the cheers of the crowd, eventually moving out of sight into the holding area under the amphitheater. The four members of the losing team were dragged to the middle of the sand and knelt in a line, facing the king and queen.

As the last man on the winning team left the arena, a complete hush fell over the crowd. A quartet of black-clad priestesses escorted by guards marched onto the court. Moving quickly, each woman looped a heavy golden chain over the head of an unresisting player before leading him out through a different exit. Servants carried anyone too injured to walk.

Groundskeepers emerged to rake the sand, hiding the bloodstains from the rough play of the previous round. The crowds fell to animated chatter and wagering, coins changing hands. Servants brought the nobility refreshments. Harsh-voiced vendors hawked food and drink on the commoners’ side. At first nothing was offered to the prisoners, although their guards accepted free drinks from vendors willingly enough. Later in the afternoon, as the games continued, two servants appeared with flagons of watered wine. Nate recognized them as Celixia’s assistants from earlier in the day when she’d brought them breakfast.

He took his flagon and tried to identify her in the glittering crowd of nobility across the way. Catching her eye, he rose, lifted the container as if to make a toast and then drank. She nodded her head slightly before one of the black-robed priestesses reprimanded her, gesticulating in the direction of the prisoners. The guards hastened to make Nate sit and took away his now empty mug.

“Doesn’t bode well for the losers, you think?” Thom asked as the same grim ending repeated after each round.

Nate shook his head. “Our captor has to be showing this to us for a reason. Are you paying close attention? I’m watching for any kind of strategy at work, or is victory obtained primarily by brute force? I thought I noticed a pattern to the passing, especially when the red team was working their last ball.”

“You think we’re going to be the visiting team?”

Nate sighed and stretched as far as the chains allowed, settling on the bench with a satisfied chuckle as he realized the guards were getting nervous. “Not today, I hope. But why else drag us out here?”

“Reminds me of soccer, or Betyran tisba,” Haranda said, clearly enjoying himself.

“You play?” Nate asked.

“Tisba. I was lead wing on the varsity team at the Star Guard Academy, two years running.”

“Don’t get cocky,” Thom said. “I don’t think you had the same kind of rules. The Sectors Star Guard generally doesn’t want its recruits killing each other. These guys are out for blood.”

The day stretched on. Nate watched four more matches, each as rapid and as brutally played as the first two. The final match was played late in the afternoon, and the team in red shirts and shorts was clearly the crowd favorite as the chanting rose to a high volume. “Do you think Kalgitr is the team name or the guy who scored the goal?”

“I’m guessing the man. He’s a bruiser, all right.”

Nate nodded. “Plays dirty too. I think he broke the other guy’s arm.”

“Win at all costs or die,” Thom said. “Nice rules.”

As expected, the red team won, and the leader strutted during his procession on the perimeter of the arena accepting the adulation of the audience.

“Full of himself,” Nate said. “His squad must win all the time.”

When the last set of losers was led away in the golden chains, the king rose and made a short speech to the attentive crowd, after which the populace filed out. With gestures, the guards ensured that Nate and his fellow captives waited until the arena was empty.

Then they were prodded to their feet and taken out the way they’d entered hours earlier, but not back to the cellblock. Instead, the three offworlders and Atletl were led to an upper balcony on the other side of the palace offering an unobstructed view of a huge public square. The population of the city appeared to have commuted to this area to wait for a follow-on event. A flat-topped, pyramidal dais dominated the area.

“There’s the big guy again. What’d you call him? Sarbordon?” Thom pointed to a flurry of activity on the far side of the dais. “How do you know his name, by the way?”

“The lady told me in a dream.”

Eyebrows raised, Thom eyed him suspiciously. “Right,” he said, drawing the word out. “Had too much sun maybe? Too much local wine last night?”

Before Nate could explain, a fanfare, sounding as if it was blown on massive seashells and repeating three times, brought silence to the chattering crowd below. A parade entered the square from the south. The crowd parted silently to let them pass. In the lead came the musicians, now accompanied by drums and flutes, followed by at least thirty black-robed priestesses.

“No sign of Celixia,” Nate said, scanning the length of the procession, oddly relieved she wasn’t in attendance, given her apparent link to their fate.

“Aren’t those the losing teams?” Haranda pointed to the rear of the long parade, only now coming into view. “I remember that team’s green and blue uniforms for sure.”

Nate had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Sarbordon and his consort walked onto the platform hand in hand. The ruler spoke briefly, after which she chanted for a short time, while the musicians accompanied her. Then the couple retreated to the side, and eight burly temple guards worked at a complicated set of wooden gears and levers set into the edges of the dais. While Nate watched, the stones in the center of the platform parted, sliding into recesses below the pavement. An opening thirty feet across had been created when the guards finally stopped working the mechanism. Leaning over, he caught a glimpse of murky water far below and movement as large, predatory creatures circled in anticipation.

“This isn’t good,” Thom said.

As Nate dreaded, the twenty-four men who’d played and lost earlier were brought to the dais, four at a time, and forced by grim-faced guards to leap or be shoved into the chasm. Terrible screams pierced the quiet as whatever aquatic creatures lurked went into a frenzy over the victims. One of the teams attempted to fight the guards, to no avail, although the prisoners did drag a terrified, cursing soldier into the well with them. Nate gritted his teeth, forcing himself to honor the brave men being slaughtered by watching their last moments and vowing to get revenge for all the wrongs done by the savage people holding him and his men captive.

Haranda retched up breakfast off to the side, while the guards pointed at him and snickered.

“Good thing we have the checkout code,” Thom said in a low voice. “I don’t want to be food for whatever lives in the well.”

“If it comes to that.” Nate had to admit he was glad to have the Mellurean mind implant buried in his subconscious, a code he could activate that would kill him between one heartbeat and the next. He checked on how the white-faced, trembling Haranda was doing. Only Special Forces operators were given the implants, because of the classified nature of their missions. “But he doesn’t. We’ll have to do our best to make sure the kid doesn’t suffer.”

The huge stone plates were being ratcheted shut again, sealing off the pit where the losing team members had been fed to the beasts. Nate risked a glance at the square below to find a drunken festival had begun, led with enthusiasm by the priestesses, who left their platform of death to mingle with the crowd. Of the royal couple there was no sign.

“Obviously, we have to win the damn game if we’re forced to play,” he said. “I didn’t see any of the winners led to the slaughter, did you?”

“Didn’t see them go free either.” Thom’s answer was pessimistic. “Maybe you live to play until you have a bad day, suppose?”

“I’ll take a chance to play over an immediate trip to the well of horror,” Nate said. “The lady told me we had to play the game, which at the time I interpreted to mean going along with whatever Sarbordon wanted, but now I get it.”

“Some complicated dream you had.”

Nate leaned close. “She said she had a plan if we survived to see her again.”

Before Thom could reply, the guards took them into the palace, leaving them in a barracks-style room with actual beds boasting mattresses, hard pillows and a set of thin, striped blankets. Each man was secured to his bed by a long ankle chain before the guards left.

“Haranda, you okay?” Nate asked as the heavy door slammed shut.

The younger man collapsed onto his bed, shaking, arm across his eyes. The guards had carried him the last few yards into the room since he’d been trembling so badly. “Leave me alone.” Rolling over, face to the wall, the pilot buried his face in the rough woolen blanket.

Nate figured he shouldn’t push the cadet. He’s got to find his own way to come to grips with what we’re facing.

Aside from guards bringing a full dinner of overcooked meat, more hard rolls and stewed, repulsive-smelling red vegetables, they were left in peace. There was no sign of Celixia. The light faded from the barred windows set high on the wall, and the room became completely dark. Nate heard Thom snore fairly soon thereafter. Haranda hiccupped periodically before he sank into restless slumber. Whether Atletl slept or not, Nate couldn’t say. Their teammate was one of those light, quiet sleepers.

Hoping to dream of Bithia again, and possibly learn more about the situation, including her role, Nate welcomed sleep. Tonight his dreams were nothing but nightmares where he fell into blood-red water filled with formless terrors.

* * *

He must have seen the game by now. Did he understand what I tried to tell him? Bithia “sat” with her knees pulled to her chin, leaning on the wall. Of course, she was perfectly well aware she was lying motionless on her cushions, held in place by the healing device, as she had been for eons. But at least her mind roamed free in this space she’d carved out over the centuries. A retreat for her consciousness when the machine’s control slackened and she was released—or she escaped—from the unconscious state. Intriguing that she’d been able to pull him to her in the dreamspace the last time. He had a flare of psychic abilities but didn’t appear to realize his capabilities, or control them, which was a pity. He’d be an even more formidable opponent.

This man, Nate, and his companions were clearly from offworld, which meant a high level of technology. I must share more in common with them than with my captors. Yet he was a prisoner too, his chains real while hers were invisible. Bithia pondered how a man like him could have been taken. Her own circumstances were unique. Perhaps he’d landed—or crashed—on Talonque and been ambushed by its still-primitive people. Spears and swords could be effective weapons in the right circumstances.

She shut her eyes and tried to recall his face with as much detail as possible. Having a new factor in the situation raised dangerous hopes, and she ought not to indulge herself. Temptation was too great, though. He was tall, well built, heavily muscled. His brown eyes had been intense in their focus on her, and his whole demeanor was that of a soldier, wary, ready to seize any chance, his thoughts a fierce and angry tapestry, yet with a keen intelligence at work. There was a sprawling, colorful bruise on his forehead and stubble on his chin. He was handsome to her eyes, in an unusual way. She ran her hands over her cheeks and chin. I wonder how I appear to him? Another of the humanoid peoples scattered through the galaxies. Who knew what their standards of attractiveness were?

The first few times she’d been awakened, to find none of her own people present, brought crushing disappointment. Now she no longer expected anything, grown numb to her abandonment. Or so I tell myself. Yet this last time, when she’d realized what—who—she was looking at, who Sarbordon had brought to her, the hope rose painfully in her heart. Could these beings, these strangers, be her way out of an unbearable life? I’d gladly help them, and maybe they can assist me.

The machine detected her level of consciousness and pushed firmly against her control. Sighing, Bithia released her hold on wakefulness and began the descent into oblivion. Tonight brings no opportunity to speak to Nate. And I mustn’t waste my hoarded store of power merely to think of him. By the time I wake again, he may be dead and gone to dust centuries in my past, like all the others.

She allowed her restorative guardian to obliterate her awareness.

* * *

In the morning another substantial breakfast was delivered, supervised by Celixia, who chatted vivaciously with Atletl as much as the wary guards would permit. After the meal, Nate and his companions were taken in chains out of the palace and loaded into a cart drawn by four ponderous animals Atletl identified as bracalx. The cart was driven to a huge walled field outside the city walls on the western side. Dozens of men were there already, running drills, exercising and practicing the sport Nate had watched the day before. Guards were posted in large numbers, and the trainers on the various fields were armed with long whips applied freely when the men were displeased.

Under guard, Nate and his men waited next to the cart while the officer strode off toward the central building.

“Reminds me of the first day at boot camp,” Nate said, watching men run laps while others practiced intricate footwork patterns.

“Except the drill instructors didn’t have whips.” Thom eyed the field. “Guards on the walls, guards on the perimeter of the area. Watching the prisoners like hawks. Not gonna be easy to break out of here.”

“Yeah, our assessments match. We’ll play along, see what happens, watch for opportunity.”

* * *

Rather than offering any opportunities for escape, the succeeding days became a numbing cycle of eating, training, sleeping and linguistic sessions Nate instituted in the evenings after dinner. He and his men needed to understand what was being said in their presence, as well as learn as much about the culture as they could. Their teacher, Atletl, had a vested interest in making them a better team, since their fates were tied together. Nate and Thom had had many languages hypno implanted for previous missions, and the side effect was to greatly enhance their ability to learn new ones. Haranda approached the task like a college assignment, grimly determined not to be outshone.

Nate and Thom were in excellent physical condition. Special Forces operators trained hard at all times, and even after suffering minor injuries when their ship crashed and on the grueling trip from the mountains and their subsequent imprisonment, they hadn’t lost their edge. Haranda didn’t have their physical power, but he was young and wiry and quick to catch on to the nuances of the game their captors insisted they learn. Atletl had evidently been a high-ranking warrior of his own people and matched Nate’s accomplishments easily on the endless drills.

“Don’t these people have holidays? Or days off?” Thom asked one night, nursing a sore arm he’d sprained in the early days of training. It wasn’t healing well at all due to the unrelenting pace of workouts. Celixia’d given him nasty-smelling green paste to rub into the muscles at night, which helped alleviate the discomfort, but what he really needed was to rest for a couple of days straight.

“Training stops only for the games,” Atletl said. “Or for special blood sacrifices or feeding of the beasts in the well. Many of those who came in chains with us on the day the sun sickened as the moons wandered were doubtless killed at once to influence the gods to restore the sun.”

No more wishing for time off. Nate asked a clarifying question about their future opponents. “So all these guys we’re training with are prisoners? Captured in battle?”

“Mostly. A few are criminals or fell afoul of the priestesses in some manner and were condemned to the games. They take offense easily at any slight. These people use the games not only to provide worthy candidates for offerings to the god, but also to settle disputes and serve as omens.”

“After what we saw today, when that poor bastard tried to escape, I’m convinced our best plan is to win the game,” Nate said.

“He never had a chance,” Thom agreed. “Even with a fight going on to distract the guards those five spears skewered him before he was halfway up the wall.”

“The one who died was a prince of his tribe. The others were trying to help him by pretending to fight to distract the guards.” Atletl’s flat tone indicated he was unmoved by the man’s fate. “The ploy failed.”

“I could have done without the trainers giving all of us three lashes to underscore the message about not attempting or abetting escapes.” Nate shifted carefully on his bunk. He’d be sleeping on his stomach for a few days.

“The trainers went easy on us because we belong to T’naritza,” Atletl said. “We’ve been moved from the ranks of beginners and those who’ll die easily. The fat, the weak, the stupid. You understand the rules of sapiche better now. Soon those in charge will expect us to play against more seasoned teams. You remember Kalgitr? The team leader at the end of the day? Men of his caliber and cunning.”

“Which we’re not ready for. You may be an excellent ‘stealer,’ and Haranda there is a genius at the damn game, but we haven’t jelled as a team. We need more time.” Nate was a strong shooter and blocker, as was Thom, but the four men had to play as one smooth unit, as if reading each other’s minds, and they were nowhere near that high level yet. He and Thom operated instinctively together, the skill developed over years of training for and running Special Forces missions, but Atletl and Haranda were wild cards. Thom nodded at the pilot. “Seven hells, kid, you’re so good even the guards pay you compliments.”

“Reminds me of my days at the Academy.” Haranda’s voice was proud and a bit nostalgic. Nate was relieved to see the pilot’s improved morale but concerned because men such as the thuggish Kalgitr played a brutal game, willing to disable or kill their opponents in order to win, and Haranda was clearly in a collegiate intramural mind-set. He and Thom could hold their own in such a game, calling on their hand-to-hand combat skills, but the cadet’s training in martial arts had been minimal at best.

After ten days of drills and practices, the trainers ordered a scrimmage. Nate’s team had to play a full game for the first time and in short order lost miserably, not making a single goal. Disgusted at the level of play, Atletl exhorted them constantly with what Nate guessed were choice curses.

“Can’t blame the guy,” he said to Thom in Basic while riding to the palace in the evening, chained in their cart. “We screw up and he dies with us.”

“He’d better elevate our level of play to match his, then.” Thom massaged his arm and shoulder. He scowled across the cart at Atletl, who rolled his eyes and pretended to be fascinated by the bracalx. “This is so crazy, you know?”

“It’s a chance.”

“Not much of one.”

Nate couldn’t argue.

But as they ate their dinner, sitting cross-legged on their beds, Atletl gave them their first piece of good news, which he’d been told by a trainer impressed with Haranda’s skills. “If a team can win ten straight games, these superstitious people say the god has favored them. The lure of the accomplishment is why Kalgitr and his men don’t care if they kill their opponents in the process of winning and why they play so rough even in our scrimmages—he wants all of us to be afraid of them. The entire team would be set free, rewarded with gold and wives and never have to play in the ball court again.”

“I know which girl you’d have your eye on if we won ten times,” Nate said. Atletl’s fondness for flirting with Celixia every chance he got was a running joke among the team.

“You don’t think winners have to choose one of the ‘birds of prey,’ do you?” Thom opened his eyes wide. “Those women are scary.”

Nate laughed. “His heart is set on our guardian priestess, Celixia. Don’t you pay attention to these things?”

“If he gets to pick Celixia, who’s left for us?” Thom said.

Atletl took the teasing good-naturedly but shook his head. “Don’t joke about the priestesses of Huitlani. They’re married to the god. They may take lovers, but not mortal husbands. And the lovers don’t live long, because Huitlani is a jealous god.”

Haranda, apparently not interested in this topic, distracted Atletl, diagramming a new play with dishes and utensils and asking his opinion about how well it would work.

“What are the odds anyone has ever claimed this fabled ‘win ten games, go free’ reward?” Thom asked Nate off to the side as Haranda and Atletl talked ball-passing strategies.

“Kalgitr’s sure trying. Did you see him snap that guy’s arm today? If this pipe dream of winning ten and going free helps the kid cope with his constant state of funk, then I say let him believe,” Nate said. “He’s been much more stable since we got sentenced to training. And he’s a natural at this damn game. Lucky for us.”

Thom persisted with his pessimistic assessment. “Nobody can win ten straight. To win so many games would be like doing ten missions in a row behind the Mawreg lines and living to tell about it. Not gonna happen, not in this lifetime. If we’re going to get out of here, it’s going to have to be some other way.”

“I know.” Nate leaned back on his bed, trying to find a comfortable spot.

Lowering his voice even further, Thom asked, “Have you been able to contact the lady again?”

Nate shut his eyes. “No. I’m not sure what enabled the first dream. Maybe it was the fact I’d been in her presence the same day for a few moments. I’ve been trying, believe me.”

Information from Bithia might be essential to their survival, but he had no idea how to force himself to dream a specific set of events, much less ensure he met her in the dream. He’d been hoping she’d reach out to him again, but as far as he could tell, she’d made no attempt. The small ration of wine in the evenings wasn’t facilitating any dreams, if it ever had. He returned to their quarters so exhausted each night from the rigorous training that he’d fall asleep before he could try to reach her. Often he felt her presence as a light touch in his mind, almost the equivalent of glimpsing her from the corner of his eye, but she never responded to his questing thoughts.

Not tonight. I’m going to make this work tonight and come to you, lady.

Drawing on techniques he’d been shown once as a kid, he slowed his breathing and visualized himself walking through the tendrils of the strange fog toward the lights of her chamber. His mind kept trying to wander, full of worry over the intricacies of the life-or-death game he was learning, or making frustratingly inadequate plans for escape. He took a moment to refocus and shake off his worries. Drawing a deep breath, he counted to ten, closed his eyes and relaxed into the scene he was painting for himself. Think of it as preparation for a mission and she’s the objective.

The military frame of reference helped.

He stood in the gray-green mists, a strong sense of pleased anticipation flickering through his consciousness when he realized he was going to see Bithia.

“Bithia?” Nate called her name as he stepped through the fog. There she was, lying on her immense high-tech couch, motionless save for slowly opening her lavender eyes. He walked across the chamber, the mist falling away, until the inexorable, invisible barrier guarding her halted his progress.

Eyes wide, she stared at him. “How did you get here? I didn’t summon you, so maybe you’re learning to use the psychic potential I sensed when we met.” The furrows in her brow smoothed, and her lips curved in a wide smile. “I’m glad to see you, and it’s pleasant to hear my birth name. I’ve missed the sound.” For a moment she studied him from head to toe. “I’m surprised you remain alive. My congratulations.”

“What’s going on here? Why are you a prisoner of low-tech killers like these people?”

“I might ask you the same question! If your only wish is to remind me of my hopeless existence, always at their beck and call, then go away and let me sleep. Oblivion is my only escape until I can die, or force Sarbordon to kill me in his endless quest for answers and omens. There’s nothing else for me.” Expression annoyed, she closed her eyes.

Nate waited, expecting the dream encounter to end, as the first one had, once she shut her eyes. When it didn’t, he realized she must still be conscious. Hiding from me. But I need answers. He studied the delicate planes of her face, finding her compellingly attractive. Her mere existence was intriguing. No matter how many worlds the Sectors explored, how many artifacts and abandoned installations the Archaeology Service dug through, no one had ever seen so much as a painting or a statue or a hologram of an Ancient Observer. The AO took great care to leave no representations of themselves, although many worlds had legends about them. He accepted Haranda’s verdict that Bithia wasn’t a member of the specific forerunner civilization that fascinated the Sectors, but he wondered if she was aware of them. And what of her own people and their accomplishments? She was definitely from an era predating his own.

“You’re still here—” Her surprised voice, with a hint of amusement, interrupted his ruminations. “Staring at me.”

“I’m not leaving until I have to, until the encounter really ends. I’m not sure I could, even if I wanted to, since control of this process appears to rest for the most part with you. And you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen on any world, well worth staring at.” He couldn’t believe he’d made such an inane remark. Like an idiot cadet on his first date. She had an unsettling effect on him, maybe because their minds were linked. He imagined what her skin felt like, how soft her hair might be—annoyed at himself, he wrested his imagination away from Bithia’s form.

“Stubborn, I see, not to take my hint and withdraw,” she said, the pleased expression on her face blunting any hint of criticism. “Actually, I’m glad you stayed. It’s been so long since I had someone to talk with who was from offworld.”

“How many years have you been—?”

“In this place? I’ve no way to know. Tell me, do you know of the Aralapanni? Or the Serennian?” The names she uttered were nothing he recognized, and even in a dream in which he shared a language with her, the syllables carried no meaning. Bithia watched him closely with those great, shadowed eyes and nodded. “You don’t know these great peoples, do you? Not even legends to you? Then truly we must have passed from the galaxy, and all our knowledge with us. And this tale of Ancient Observers I pluck from your mind means nothing to me. Certainly not my people, nor any of the races I know.”

Nate was frustrated by their lack of any common reference, aside from the planet upon which he now stood, equally alien and hostile to both of them. Start there. The current situation ought to provide enough of a foundation for them to relate to each other.

“I don’t know how you got here, but our ship crashed,” he said, leaning against the barrier and crossing his arms over his chest, settling in for a chat. “We were being chased by a Mawreg client race—enemies of our entire species. To escape we had to go into hyperdrive too close to a blue giant star, ended up out of control in this system and crashed.” He touched his forehead where the last remnants of the bruise remained. “I was knocked out in the crash, and these thugs grabbed my men when they were crawling from the wreckage and dragging me to safety.”

“Where did you crash? And who are these Mawreg?” Despite her prior claims to want nothing but untroubled sleep and oblivion, Bithia seized on new information with the hunger of a highly intelligent creature denied fresh mental stimulus for a long time. “Can you visualize one for me?”

He did, in automatic response to her question. The memory made him nauseated. How the Mawreg looked was wrong in all respects.

Bithia didn’t react with instinctive repugnance to the Mawreg, at least as glimpsed in his hastily shut-off memory. “Hideous, yes, but unknown to me.”

Nate had seen them up close, which few people ever survived, much less retained a hold on sanity, but that was in another life.

“Another life?” She plucked the phrase from his mind. “You believe in the recycling of the spirit through time?”sneakpeek-cover-trappedontalonque

“No, you misunderstand me.” He chuckled. Have to get used to her ability to instantaneously read my private musings. Or develop a mental block to keep her out. The second strategy didn’t hold much appeal. He liked hearing her musical voice in his head. “I’m an officer in the Sectors Special Forces, usually working behind enemy lines to carry out assassinations, sabotage installations, accomplish military objectives. Another life than the one I’m leading here on this cursed planet. Here, I’m in training for the sapiche playoffs.”

“I don’t know this Mawreg. Fortunately for me, judging from what you say and remember of them.” Bithia frowned. In the resulting “silence,” Nate’s irritation grew. She could pick any thought of his at will, but he could only “hear” what she chose to “say” to him. After a contemplative moment, she sighed. “I came to Talonque, this world, of my own choice with my father’s expedition. He was an explorer of great renown among our people. He also wanted to help the people here learn and grow more civilized.”

“We leave indigenous planetary populations alone, unless they’ve already reached a specific level of civilization,” Nate said. “We learned the hard way a few too many times that it’s no good to go in with what the Sectors can offer if you’re dealing with people who haven’t yet evolved technical sophistication. The population gets the wrong idea—”

“Think of you as gods?” Bithia asked wryly. “I believe we were learning the lesson. I can certainly testify to it now. A growing number of my people liked the idea.”

“But not you?”

“No. Even before I was forced into this career as the all-knowing goddess T’naritza. Nor did my father approve of such a concept. But his associates Tedesk and Syrmir, well…” She fell silent. “But bringing the novelties of a new world home to my people engendered much profit and fame. My father wasn’t immune to the lure of both but wouldn’t dream of presenting himself as a god. The truth mutates unrecognizably over time, doesn’t it?”

“What happened? Why did you get left here, in this way?” How do you stay sane? He guessed the machine kept her in a form of suspended animation or cryo sleep between summonses from those who worshipped her. He speculated that the device must have a beneficial effect on her mind, to keep her from overwhelming despair.

The dream ended before she could answer, much to his chagrin. The guards kicked his bed, ordering him and the others to rise for another endless day of drilling and scrimmage.

Thom gave him the eye as they ate breakfast mush and fruit. “You saw her?”

Nate kept his voice low as well. “Yeah, but the dream was too short to learn much. She’s never heard of the AO or the Mawreg, and I’ve never heard of her people. She came on a scientific expedition, as near as I can figure out. I don’t know how she got trapped.”

“Nothing useful, then.” Thom dropped his spoon into his empty bowl.

“Other than proving I can reconnect with her? No. I’ll try again tonight.”

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