Saturday, April 28, 2012
Saturday's Chapter - Nexus - Jaleta Clegg
Ameli jabbed needles into my arm before hooking me to the hypnoteacher. The drugs worked their way through my system. I slid into sleep, the hypnoteacher whispering in my head like a chorus of ghosts.
Ameli woke me the next morning. She didn't give me any choice about that, either.
"Another glorious day," she said cheerfully. "The sun is about to rise."
"Go away," I said as forcefully as I could. My brain was like an overstuffed cushion pressing on my skull.
"Rise and shine." Ameli jerked the blanket off.
I shivered in the sudden chill.
"You've got five minutes to use the facilities." She nudged a pot on the floor with her foot. She left, taking the blanket with her.
I stared at the pot. The lump of knowledge in my head unfolded slightly. This was the epitome of bathroom facilities. It smelled like it had already been used.
I stood by the hard, narrow bed and shivered until Ameli returned. She dropped a pile of clothing on the bed. I shook it out to reveal an underdress of stained yellow with an overskirt in faded gray. Native dress for a servant, the lump of knowledge in my head informed me. It would unfold on its own, sooner or later, and I'd pay a price then, but for now I knew a little about Dadilan and could speak the language if I concentrated. I put the outfit on.
Ameli tapped her foot as she looked me over. She frowned at my hair. "It should be much longer."
I kept my hair shorn to less than an inch. It didn't stick up as noticeably and didn't remind of the orphanage on Tivor every time I looked in a mirror. Ameli solved the problem by tying a scarf over my head. It itched.
"My boots?" I asked. They were specially fitted and they were expensive.
She handed me a dainty pair of slippers.
I refused to take them. "I want my boots."
"And the lockpicks in them? So sorry, Dace. I think you just added another fifty years to your prison sentence."
"They aren't mine." I bit my lip when I realized how stupid that sounded.
"They're part of the evidence against you and your meddling. Leran has them." She smiled brightly. "Enjoy your life, Dace, what's left of it. Don't come back into mine." She swept out the door, hips swinging.
I jammed my feet into the slippers as I hurried after her.
"Ameli, wait, please." Maybe if I told a good lie, I could convince her to help. And maybe I'd be invited to tea with the Emperor's mother. I was a terrible liar.
I tripped over the slippers and fell down a short flight of stairs. I landed on my butt at the bottom. I winced as I hit bruises.
Leran, Ky, and several other men stood by the front door. They watched impassively as I collected what remained of my dignity and got to my feet.
"If you are quite finished?" Leran asked politely.
Leran gave me a look I couldn't interpret.
Ky opened the front door. Sunlight poured into the room. The men walked outside. I followed.
At least a dozen horses dozed in the area right outside the door. I stopped in the doorway.
"Oh, no." I backed away. "I am not riding one of those things." I liked my animals in a zoo behind bars, not up close.
"Yes, you are," Ky said.
"No." I dug my fingers into the door frame.
He leaned over me, drowning me in his shadow. "I could give you to the Baron. He'd be more than happy to see you again."
I swallowed hard. Riding a horse or certain death involving hot iron. I unpried my fingers from the door frame. Ky nodded and stepped out of my way. I walked over to the tamest looking horse. It tried to bite me.
I retreated a step. "This isn't a good idea."
"Get on the horse," Ky said. "Show her how, Vin."
One of the men took a horse by its harness and swung onto its back. He made it look easy.
I glanced over my shoulder at Leran, weighing my chances of escape. The odds weren't high enough yet. I grabbed the hair growing on the horse's neck and pulled myself onto its back, lying on my belly. The animal promptly jogged away. I slid off, landing in the dirt. One of the other men caught the horse.
"You have to hang on," Ky said.
I stood, brushing dirt off my backside. "Hang on to what?"
"It also helps if you sit."
"We could always tie her on," the man holding the horse suggested.
"Not a bad idea." Ky flexed his fists.
"Move," Leran ordered.
Ky picked me up and dumped me on the horse. He shoved my foot into a loop of leather hanging to one side. My other knee went around a knob just behind the horse's neck. I grabbed big handfuls of neck hair as the animal started walking.
One of the men led the horse on a long lead rope. We rode away from the house to the wild hills beyond. I hung on, gritting my teeth against a growing ache in my backside.
We rode through widely spaced trees alternating with grassy meadows. Lacy leaves tossed in a light breeze. The land appeared wild, completely uninhabited. Leran called a halt in the shade of an extra big tree.
I slid off the horse. The sound of water running woke thirst. I hobbled to the stream, crouching to scoop up a handful of icy water, drinking despite the things floating in it.
The men watered the horses, then staked them out where the grass grew high. Ky walked over to me. He dropped a chunk of coarse bread and greasy cheese into my lap.
"Thank you," I said. If I could convince them I was harmless and friendly, maybe I could get more information out of them. Maybe they wouldn't mention the illegal lockpicks when they turned me over to the Patrol.
Ky glared before turning away.
And maybe not. I ate the bread and cheese. Shadows of fish darted past my rock. Once I got my bearings I would slip away. They couldn't watch me all the time. So far, they hadn't done more than threaten to turn me in on criminal charges. It was lightyears away from torture with hot iron. Maybe I should stay with Leran.
"What are you really doing here?"
I glanced over my shoulder at Leran's white robe. "It was an accident."
"No one lands here by accident." He stepped around me, pausing just at the edge of the water. Sunlight and shade dappled his robe.
"We had to make an emergency downshift. We were supposed to be at Thurwood."
"And what is an honest, law abiding captain doing with these?" He held out the lockpicks.
The truth sounded stupid even to me. Leran would never believe it.
"Ameli said you were going to press charges against me," I said instead.
"Me personally? No. I'll let the Patrol decide what to do with you." He tapped the lockpicks against his palm. "Unless you tell me who you really are and why you're here. I'm sure we can come to some sort of understanding."
I stared at him, confused. "My name is Dace. I'm captain of the Star's Grace."
"And owner? Your lies need work, Captain." He tucked the lockpicks into his robe. "Convince me, Dace, or I'll give you to the Patrol without a second thought."
He walked away, signaling the men to round up the horses. I sighed and got off my rock. My legs locked. I limped to my horse. It rolled its eyes, sidling away from me. I grabbed the leather straps buckled around its head.
"I don't like you, either." The horse bared its teeth. I yanked on the strap.
Ky slapped my hand away from the horse. "Get on."
I didn't want to, but it was Leran and the horse or the unknown. I scrambled onto the horse. It snorted and tried to walk out from under me. I found the loop for my foot, settling into the seat.
Leran watched, his face inscrutable. Once I was on, he wheeled his horse, kicking it into motion. The others followed. We left the stream, striking out across a series of hills. I bounced on my horse, trying to ease the cramps in both legs.
My head ached; whether from the crash, the subsequent beating, or the hypnoteacher, I couldn't tell. I poked at the knowledge in my head as a diversion. It didn't help.
Dadilan made Tivor, the planet I'd grown up on, look like a paradise. Women on Dadilan had no rights; they were the property of men. My escort made more sense after I digested that. As far as anyone was concerned, I belonged to Leran. I hated the thought.
I eyed the beefy men surrounding me. They were scarred and tough looking. My chances of a successful escape were slim to nonexistent. If I did leave Leran, I might land somewhere even worse.
Time crawled past in a sticky haze of sweat and aching muscles. We climbed steadily as the day wore on. Mountains rose above the hills, tall monoliths of gray stone dotted with dark green. The smell of growing things filled the air. Small birds flitted between the wide branches of scattered trees.
Leran finally called a halt late in the afternoon when we reached a wide flat bordered by thick trees and a high cliff of gray stone. Water dripped down the wall of stone, forming a pool at the base. A thin stream cut through the meadow.
I stayed on my horse. My legs tingled from lack of circulation. I wriggled my toes in an attempt to wake muscles. Leran spoke to Ky. They gathered two of the men and the horses carrying packs. The group rode away at an angle to the path we'd been following most of the day. The three men still in camp ignored me. One of them started a fire while the other two cared for the horses.
I pried my knee off the knob, losing my precarious balance to slide down the side of the horse. I grabbed for its neck hair. The horse shifted away, heading towards the pool of water. I fell onto my face.
I muttered swear words as I stood. I winced as I picked my way across rocks, cursing Ameli for taking my boots and leaving me with useless slippers. I found a spot to sit and watch the man cook.
He glanced across the dancing flames. "Who do you work for?" He stirred a handful of leaves into the pot.
"Myself." I sniffed appreciatively.
He grinned, showing a missing tooth. "Leran might deal, if you offered good enough. He's not bad to work for, not like the others."
"What are you talking about?"
He laughed. "Play innocent, Captain Dace, and you won't live three days here. They play for keeps."
I waited for him to explain. He didn't. He whistled while he stirred the soup.
My eyes grew heavy. I wanted a hot bath and a pain patch. I slumped against my rock, shifting a bag to use as a pillow. The sky faded into deep blue. A handful of tiny moons glowed over the far horizon.
I fell asleep listening to the crackling fire and the whistling cook.
I woke to shouting and screaming and confusion. Men wrestled over the fire, stepping into it and scattering burning branches. I scrambled away from a shower of sparks.
A man swung a long knife at me, the edge glinting orange in the light of the fire now burning the surrounding grass. I blocked the blow, kneeing him in the belly. He dropped the knife.
I rolled under his feet as another man jumped to attack. The knife glinted. I dove for it, but another tangle of fighting men kicked it away. I scrambled on all fours, heading for the darkness under the trees. A large man loomed out of the shadows, swinging his fist. I grabbed a branch from the ground, wielding it like a club. I connected with his ribs. He lurched away.
The horses broke from their makeshift pen, crashing through the men to run down the hills. The men shouted louder. I paused near the trees, the branch clutched in my hands. At least a dozen men still wrestled near the fire, too many for me to fight. I ran downhill, after the horses.
I meant to circle around, to head back to camp and hide until the fight ended. I got lost instead.
The tiny moons overhead gave little light; the stars gave less. I stopped in a clear space to catch my breath. The hills looked the same in every direction, trees and grass and nothing to indicate where the camp lay. I picked a direction at random, hoping it was the right one.
I stumbled into a stream. The cold water soothed my bare feet.
Eyes glinted in the shadows. Something growled. I splashed out of the stream. The creature growled again, sounding big and hungry. I ran, my heart pounding in my throat. Animals belonged in zoos, not out in the open.
I heard it crash through bushes behind me. I ran faster, blindly, through the dark woods. I slammed into a tree and skidded to a stop. I hung on to the trunk, shaking hard. I looked behind me, searching for eyes in the dark. I saw hundreds of them. I panicked, running again.
I clawed my way through thickets and brambles. I dodged past barely seen trees. I splashed through streams and tore my feet on rocks. I was lost in the woods with animals that wanted to eat me. I ran until my side ached and I couldn't breathe.
I stumbled to a stop. Grasses waved in a light breeze. Mist rose from a stream, thin streamers of white that faded only a few feet above the ground. I dropped to my knees, trembling from fear. My stomach heaved. I retched up nothing.
The grass in front of me slowly parted. I stared into a wide face of evil green eyes and huge fangs. The animal snarled, showing more teeth. I didn't have the breath to run any longer. I scrabbled through the grass until I found a big rock. I staggered to my feet, hefting the rock in shaky arms.
"Go away," I said, my voice squeaking with fear. "You aren't going to eat me."
The creature licked its fangs and came closer, moving on stealthy paws.
"I mean it. Don't mess with me." I lifted the rock to my shoulder. My muscles protested.
The creature shot a look over its shoulder, then bounded away into the night.
I let out a slow breath. Something had just scared the creature. That something would be bigger and meaner. Fear shivered along my spine. I held the rock higher, ready to throw it at the new threat.
He came out of the mist like a primeval god in a really bad romance vid–dark hair, darker eyes, and a face stolen from my most secret fantasies. He wore a leather vest with no shirt, tight pants, and tall boots. He stopped on the other side of the stream, muscles flexing as he folded his bare arms across his chest.
I swallowed hard, wondering if he was just a dream. I shifted my feet on the stream bank. "What do you want?"
He looked me over, not answering.
I lifted the rock, trying to appear as threatening as possible. I lost my hold on it. It fell into the stream with a loud splash.
His lip twitched as he smothered a chuckle.
Having a complete stranger laugh at me was the final straw. I thumped down on the stream bank, dropping my head into my hands.
The man splashed across the stream, his touch gentle on my shoulder. "Are you hurt?"
I shook my head. I'd felt worse and lived.
He watched me a moment longer, then put his arm around my shoulders.
I stiffened at the unexpected touch. No one had ever tried to comfort me. I surprised myself by bursting into tears. I'd lost control. I hated the feeling. I struggled until I finally fought the tears back. Only the occasional hiccuping sniffle escaped.
"Feel better?" he asked, just a trace of sarcasm coloring his voice. He shifted away, leaving me cold.
I couldn't look at him, embarrassed by my outburst. I stared down at his vest, at his muscles, at his hands, anywhere but at his face.
"You want to explain why you're out here?" He waited, still as a statue.
I finally looked up, at his face. It was a mask, giving nothing away. "I got lost?"
He raised one eyebrow. "Lost from where?"
I dug through the information Ameli had dumped into my head. I found little of any help. "My father's house."
He shifted position slightly, enough to change from sympathy to threat. "You're no native of this planet. You want to try again?"
I edged away. "No. How do you know I'm not native?" My curiosity got the better of me.
"You're speaking Basic."
I hadn't realized it. I repeated one of the more colorful expressions I'd learned from Toiba.
The man raised his eyebrow higher.
"You aren't native, either." I sniffled, wiping my nose on the back of my hand.
He stood. I glimpsed a tattoo on the inside of his wrist, an intricate black diamond that only one group in the Empire had.
I froze, not knowing if it was good or bad. "You're a Patrol Enforcer."
"Give me one good reason I shouldn't shoot you."
"You aren't carrying a blaster."
He moved fast. He knotted his fist into the neck of my dress, his face barely an inch from mine. "I don't need one. Who are you and why are you here? Don't even try lying."
"Leran . . ."
He shoved me to the ground, on my stomach. His hand pinned me to the bank. I struggled to keep my face above the rippling surface of the stream. I planted my hands in the icy water and shoved. His hold didn't budge.
"You work for him?"
"Leran? No. He was taking me to the Patrol." I shut my eyes and waited for the man to drown me.
"Why would he do that?"
I was a lousy liar. This man would see through anything I tried. I gave him the truth. "Because I ruined his research. I crashed in Baron Molier's cow pasture. He said I was a demon. He was going to kill me. Leran decided to take me to the Patrol base and turn me in instead."
The man's hold relaxed. I shifted back an inch from the water.
"Keep talking," he said.
"We stopped somewhere in the hills. The camp was attacked."
"There were too many to fight so I left. I got lost."
"You still haven't told me who you are."
"Dace. My name is Dace."
He rocked onto his heels, letting me go. I scrambled away from the water.
"I don't think you heard me." He flexed his hands. "What's your name, your full name?"
"Dace." I wasn't about to use a name I'd discarded six years previously.
"I'll let that pass for now. How did you come here?"
"My ship exploded. The core redlined. The escape pod landed me here."
"In Baron Molier's cow pasture, you already said that. What ship?"
"Star's Grace, Independent trader registered out of Eruus."
"What was your position, ship's idiot?"
I'd already embarrassed myself, I wasn't about to let him insult me. I sat, sticking out my chin. "I'm the pilot. And I'm telling you the truth."
He gave me a look that said he didn't believe it.
"I'm also the captain and owner."
He laughed, a short bark of sound.
"Believe it or not, it's the truth." The anger drained away, replaced by fatigue. I wrapped my arms around myself, wishing I was at the Academy where I could ignore the humiliation the other cadets dished out.
"You aren't going to cry again, are you?" He looked afraid of the possibility.
I shook my head and sniffled. I'd wait until later, when he wasn't looking. He watched me fight with myself. He finally sighed.
"My camp is just across the stream. You look like you could use something to drink." He stood and offered me his hand.
I stared stupidly at it. He confused me. He wasn't threatening me, not now. I took his hand. He lifted me without effort. I couldn't hide my wince when my feet hit the rocks.
"This way," he said, pulling me after him.
I limped across the stream, soaking the bottom of my skirt. He pushed me down onto a rock before stirring up a small fire. My stomach growled. I rubbed my arms, shivering in the night air.
I studied the man surreptitiously. His hair was longer than mine, very dark with reddish highlights. It curled just slightly where it brushed the back of his neck. He stirred the pot steaming on the fire. The tattoo on his wrist caught the light and my imagination. What was a Patrol Enforcer doing here? Why try to drown me when I mentioned Leran's name? Something was rotten on Dadilan.
Not my problem; I was leaving. I would face whatever criminal charges were levied against me. I would give them the truth. The Patrol would have to believe me. But this man was Patrol and he didn't believe me.
The man handed me a steaming cup dipped out of the pot. I wrapped my hands around it and sipped the hot drink. It wasn't enough to counterbalance the cold night air and my wet skirt. My teeth chattered. The man fetched a blanket out of a neat pack on the ground. He dropped it over my shoulders. I clutched it tight. He loomed over me. I felt even shorter than I usually did.
"Try again." He sat on a rock nearby. "Start at the beginning."
"I was born . . ."
"Not that far back." He shot me an impatient look.
"I told you. My ship was en route to Thurwood with a load of machine parts. Something went wrong. I had to do an emergency downshift out of hyperspace. The core redlined and the ship exploded."
"Not very professional of you." He poked at the fire with a stick. "You say your name is Dace and you own your own ship."
"It's the truth." My ship was a cloud of radioactive debris. I sighed again.
"No crying." He pointed the stick at me. "That isn't fair."
I wiped my nose on his blanket.
"What were you doing with Leran?" he asked casually, studying the end of his pointy stick. I sensed the answer I gave would determine how he used it.
"He pulled me out of Baron Molier's dungeon and offered to have me arrested. It was better than being skewered by hot iron pokers."
"Why are you speaking like a native now?" The man touched the pointy end of his stick.
"They used a hypnoteacher. It doesn't work right on me." I sipped at the drink, watching him carefully. The stick was still very evident. "It usually takes me a week or two to get all the information straight again. It's easier just to learn it the old way. What's your name and why are you out here?"
He studied me, the stick waving in the air between us. After a moment, it went into the fire, pointy end first.
"Malcolm Tayvis," he said. "I'm looking for my partner. He was supposed to meet me here two days ago. I don't think he's going to make it. So tell me what to do with you."
"Leran was going to let the Patrol at the base deal with me. His assistant explained at length about Dadilan's protected status."
"And you were dumb enough to believe them?" He scraped a section of dirt flat, then stabbed his finger into it. "That's Baron Molier's keep. That's Leran's mansion." He stabbed the dirt again right next to the first stab, then drew a curved line. "These are the mountains. We are somewhere about here." Another stab to the left of the first two. He moved to the right of the first marks, away from the end of the curved line, and made another mark. "That's the Patrol base. Leran was taking you in the opposite direction."
I was lousy at maps, but even I could tell Leran had lied to me about our destination.
"Gragensberg is here." Malcolm Tayvis made another mark above the others. "Big city and home to a second group of researchers led by Shomies Pardui. I doubt he was headed there. They hate each other. I would guess Leran was taking you here." Another mark, far to the left. "To the slave market."
He couldn't possibly have said slave market. Slavery was illegal. "But Leran said the Patrol tracked us in. Is that why you're here, to investigate the pods?"
"Pods?" Tayvis brushed past my question. "How many of you are there?"
"I had two on my crew. I don't know where they ended up. They jumped ship as soon as they could." I frowned at his map. Why had Flago abandoned ship as soon as we were through the jump point? Before the core redlined, before we knew our position. Jerith showed no surprise over the engine problems, but he had been surprised the core wouldn't eject.
I shook my head. I didn't have more than a tickle of suspicion.
Tayvis backtracked to my previous question. "If that fireball two nights ago was your pod, then the answer is no, the Patrol wouldn't send someone out looking for you. I'm surprised you survived the crash."
"The radar system died. I had to guess."
"You're in remarkably good shape." Tayvis didn't need a pointy stick to look dangerous. I swallowed a new knot in my throat. "Who are you really working for? Who's paying you to smuggle shara?"
"What?" Fear lost out to confusion.
He stirred the fire with another stick. "You are where you don't belong. Which means you're up to something illegal."
"Flying my ship from Beccurot to Thurwood is perfectly legal."
"How old are you?"
"None of your business."
He grinned. He looked younger and a lot less dangerous. I reminded myself he was a Patrol Enforcer, undercover on this planet for a reason. He could kill me and no one would question him.
"Did you run away from the Academy on Eruus or did they kick you out?"
"I graduated two months ago."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
His grin faded. He dug through his pack, pulling a length of rope free. "You don't give me a lot of options. I'll sleep better if I know you're not going to try to kill me."
"You're going to tie me."
"You have a better suggestion?"
"What if I promise?"
"I don't know if I can trust you."
I gave in, too tired to fight. I held out my wrists. He tied them together, then fastened them to my ankles. I didn't tell him I could have untied myself in less than two minutes. I rolled into his blanket.
He leaned over me, a shadow in the fading firelight. "If you aren't here in the morning, you'd better run as far as you can. Because if you've lied to me, no one is going to ever find you." He moved away, across the dying fire.
Sleep was a long time coming.