She listened intently in the darkness. Faintly in the distance she could hear the rush of an underground river and the rush of the wind in the tunnel outside her cubbyhole. But that wasn't what woke her.
Then she caught the sound again. A rumble of noises, a jumble of sounds; people marching. A group of people were passing through a main tunnel, not that far away. Sound so faint she would not have noticed it had not her survival instincts been so honed.
She got to her feet, making no noise as she did it. She moved to the mouth of the cubbyhole and listened some more. The sound was still faint but she could hear it better here.
Yes, there was no mistake. It was definitely the sound of a group of people marching -- not in time, like trained soldiers or workers, but in the ragged, unmatched steps of a group simply moving from one place to another. Just a gang, chased from one home, looking for another, she thought. People as lost and without hope as she was; though that was no reason to expect they would be kind to her if they caught her. Besides, it was just as likely it was a hunting party, looking for food. Breese had no intention of filling up some gang's cooking pot if she could help it.
She turned back in the near darkness, a thin, lithe woman with the wiry strength of one who had survived in this underground wilderness for more years than most, though she was still in her twenties. She found her belt and gun, and put them on. In one corner there was a bag, little more than a pillowcase with a strap which she slipped over her shoulder. She feared she might not be coming back to the comfort of this particular cubbyhole any more.
The bag held her few possessions. Some extra clothing, a comb and brush to take care of her dark hair, some dried food, a couple of books. She was richer than most of the cave wanderers, and that fact made her cautious and suspicious. The flesh on her bones would tempt too many people, even as undernourished as she was. But the fact that she owned stuff would tempt some of them to the point of hysteria.
And especially because she had a gun.
It was a magnificent weapon, which could be carried in one hand, made by the ancients as long ago as 10,000 years she believed. It fired a powerful charge, generated by a battery that seemed never to run out, and could be adjusted to either stun or kill. Many people in the caverns were armed with knives or spears they had found among the ruined cities, or occasionally a surface gun that set off an explosion to propel a metal slug, but most were armed with whatever sort of homemade weapon they could devise -- often little more than a sling to throw rocks with. To have an actual energy weapon made by the ancients -- that was power. It had given her an advantage over whole gangs, more than once, and saved her life many times.
Thus, with a wistful regret, Breese left the small hole-in-the-wall and moved back along the narrow passage toward the main tunnel from which now came the low sounds of people moving.
She didn't think the tunnel she was in had been bored out of the rock by the ancients. The walls were rough, not coated with the ancients' smooth, virtually impervious material. Nor was the tunnel lighted with the ancient atomic lights that still worked in many of the main tunnels, even after so many millennia. What lighting there was here, was furnished by the occasional patch of luminescent fungus on the tunnel wall. Further, the tunnel was narrow and dug into the rock at a place where the main tunnel widened and old crumbled ruins and an outcropping of rock provided some concealment.
Still, the tunnel was skillfully made and the ones who made it had possessed tools no longer generally available in the caverns -- and the knowledge to use those tools.
Where the passage connected with the larger, ancient tunnel, Breese stopped close to the edge of the opening and stared out.
The entrance was a narrow notch in the wall of the main tunnel. It slanted inward at a shallow angle, then widened at a point where it could not be detected as anything more than a crack by a casual observer outside. Three or four people could hold off an army here for as long as they had food. Or one person with an ancients' power weapon. There was a pile of natural detritus, resembling boulders that had pushed their way up through the floor to offer further concealment. She crouched down and waited.
She could hear the approaching group clearly now. Maybe as many as a dozen people marching along with not enough caution. Their feet sounded heavy on the paved tunnel.
She could see several of them already, coming around a bend in the tunnel, marching in her direction, A woman, barbarically dressed in animal skins and carrying a sword, slung across her back. Three, also armed, walked with her, prodding along three bound prisoners. And behind them --
Floating at about waist level, a number of globes, glowing with various colors, though most of them were silver. They seemed to be a little smaller than human heads, and they were floating on their own power, following the small group of humans. Breese had never seen their like before.
Behind them, another guard, forcing a male prisoner to haul a travois on which Breese could clearly see parts of at least one human body. Apparently the captors had already fed. The guard, a burly man with a white streak in his dark hair, had a short whip which he used to urge the prisoner whenever he faltered. It was evident the poor man was almost unconscious on his feet but the captors paid no attention to his exhaustion.
Breese pulled back into the protecting shadows of the notch and watched them.
Five slavers and four captives.
One did not casually become involved in the problems of others here in the caves, no matter how dire. Especially if the problems were dire. Breese was savvy enough to realize what was in store for the prisoners. The lucky ones faced a life of slavery and pain. The others would be killed violently, their corpses either abandoned to rot or be devoured by animals, or else they would end up in their captors' cooking pots. The latter was more likely because there were few sources for food in these caverns, and those seemed to dwindle every day.
Two of the prisoners were women -- one of them little more than a girl. Breese didn't think it likely she would end up in a stew kettle, because of her youth and looks. But she might be luckier if she did. A rag had been stuffed in her mouth to muffle her loud sobbing, but as the party passed Breese's hiding place, she could hear them. Breese saw her wide, terrified eyes, staring wildly around as her captors prodded her forward with their wooden clubs.
Breese stepped a bit closer to the light than she intended, at the same time the girl glanced in her direction. The girl saw her, and as Breese pulled back into cover she could see the pleading in her eyes, hear the tonal change in her sobs. Breese almost sobbed herself, but it would be foolish to get involved in the problems of strangers. With a single misstep she might find herself in the girls' predicament.
One of the guards pushed the girl forward.
"Move faster," he growled.
Breese moved back in the shadows until she could no longer hear the passing gang. Then she looked out again, to make sure the main tunnel was empty. She watched a long time, but saw nothing to alarm her.
They had gone and she was safe. To remain safe all she had to do was keep hidden and let whatever might happen to the captive strangers, happen.
Breese turned and went back to the small cave she was using as a home.
Thousands of years ago the caverns and tunnels had been dug into the planet, and the civilization known as the Elder World moved in to protect themselves from a field of dangerous radiation the planet was moving through and would be moving through for the rest of its existence. But the Elders had not only the means of building the caverns that honeycombed the deep recesses of this world, but the means of travelling to other worlds as well.
That radiation, in the judgment of the ancients, was rendering this world unfit for human habitation. Those who remained here would suffer many ills, and live a drastically shortened lifespan, even in the tunnels. Since they enjoyed a lifespan of many centuries, the Ancients did not welcome aging. In time, and not too long a time, the Ancients abandoned the planet altogether, opting for a life on planets of stars that did not spew out such deadliness. They left behind those who either would not join them or were already dangerously affected by the radiation.
Therefore a remnant of the planet's original inhabitants did not depart. They remained along with the primitives who still lived on the planet's surface. Living underground, they had access to the technology left behind by the Ancients, but under the harmful influence of the radiation, they lost their grasp of science. They had not the knowledge of science necessary to repair the machines. The machines of the Elder World were designed to last for centuries, because the ancients lived for centuries. But eventually even the ancients' machines began to break down, and when they did, some of them gave off the same deadly radiation found on the surface.
So, while the caverns were filled with wondrous machines that could cure disease, extend life and make existence safer and easier, more comfortable and more pleasurable, the people who possessed and controlled those wondrous machines had only the weakest understanding of how to use them correctly. And even those people were often insane, another side effect of the radiation. They were a pathetic representation of the now declining civilization known as the Elder World that had once dominated this planet. After thousands of years, many of them had access to no machines at all, but only to the tunnels, the caverns, and the ruins inside the caverns.
And occasionally a single power weapon for self defense.
Breese tried to go back to sleep. The cave seemed cold to her, even when she piled skins over herself for cover. She could not get the image of the prisoners out of her mind, especially the young girl who had seen her as she pulled back into hiding; the young girl who had pleaded with her eyes to be saved from her captors. After a time she admitted to herself that she could not sleep for thinking about those captives and the fate that awaited them.
She was cursing herself for taking so long to make her decision. Had she decided immediately to attempt some sort of rescue for the prisoners, she would have had the advantage of cover and terrain she was familiar with. Now the chances were good that if she found the slavers at all, it would be on their ground where they would have advantages.
Not that they would have all the advantages. Breese still had her handgun. She found it months ago among the ruins of an Elder Race house that sat by itself in a large cave that contained an ancient lake. The gun was the only thing left there that she found undamaged, hidden in a small recess in the house's foundation. Who left it there or why, or how long ago she had no idea.
It was a powerful weapon, more powerful than the weapons she customarily encountered in this claustrophobic world she lived in. It was incredibly old. That it still worked after so long a time amazed her, but it did, as did many of the other ancient machines that still existed. What sort of power source it might have she could not guess. But she had a vague idea that the power would eventually run out and the weapon would then be useless. That might not happen for centuries yet, or it might happen the next time she needed it.
Still, it was her only advantage, so she had to rely on it. But Breese was smart enough to know it was not enough advantage against five ruthless and likely crazed opponents. She needed surprise on her side to be certain that she did not meet the same fate as the people she had decided to rescue.
Surprise and luck.
She threw back the furs that covered her and found the thin scarf which she tied around her hips, sarong-fashion. She found her gun belt and weapon and fastened it around her waist. A small knife dangled from the belt. There was no call to take anything else; anything else, even food, would just weigh her down.
The main tunnel was reasonably warm. One of the reasons Breese thought the side tunnel she used as her hiding place was more recent than the main tunnels was that the temperature in it was not as warm as in the main tunnels.
This could happen, she had once been told, because of geological and even geographical conditions not obvious to people living in the caves. An underground river could affect the temperature of adjacent rock, making an unfinished or crudely built tunnel unbearably cold or hot. But the tunnels the ancients built were seldom cold and seldom more than a little bit warmer than the human comfort level, because of their deepness inside the earth. The scant animal skins and thin dress she wore were comfortable enough.
She really had only a vague idea where the slavers had taken their prisoners. It was even possible they were not from around here; that they were on the run and searching for an empty cave or a cave they could take away from the people who currently occupied it. But she knew the direction they were traveling, and she started that way.
The acoustics in the cave could be helpful to someone who knew how to listen and Breese knew how. She stayed close to the wall on the right side of the tunnel and moved cautiously at first. There were no sounds, which indicated that the slavers and their victims had moved on ahead. Probably they were moving fast and carelessly enough to cover her noise. But it was never a bad idea to be cautious, and she took off her shoes and carried them as she increased her speed. After some time she slowed down and listened. She picked up faint sounds that assured her the slavers were not far ahead.
She moved more cautiously now, pausing often to determine how far ahead her prey might be. She seemed to be getting closer.
The tunnel she was in was sloping downward, now. Some of the tunnels went hundreds of miles deeper into the earth than the one she was in. Mostly they were connected with stairwells, elevator shafts, and other shafts that she had been told made use of antigravity mechanisms which nowadays usually no longer worked. But often the tunnels suddenly sloped downward, to join with deeper caves. Reliable maps were rare in the caverns, but unless you had one, you never knew what you might face at the next turn.
She listened carefully. Breese thought that she was getting closer to those she was following. She started contemplating what she would do when she caught up with them -- which would not be long now.
She came to a stretch where the lights were dimmer than in the rest of the passage. Here, parts of the tunnel were shrouded in shadows. She hesitated before going on.
It was either turn back or move ahead. Breese considered what to do. The sound of the group ahead of her grew fainter. She decided to take advantage of the shadows and keep to the right side of the tunnel. She took the gun in her hand and moved carefully forward.
There was a buildup of rubble and detritus in her way, which created even more shadows, some of them heavy and dark. The floor was rough and she had to put her shoes back on. Furthermore, there was the danger of tripping unless she moved very carefully. The middle of the tunnel was clear, of course, but there was light there. If anyone was waiting ahead of her she would be a sitting duck in the middle of the tunnel.
She held her gun at her side as she moved forward.
A sound ahead caused her to stop in her tracks. She thought she saw something moving in the shadows.
She lifted the gun and peered into darkness, trying to will herself to see what, if anything, had moved.
A figure stepped out from behind some rocks. It was a human figure and abruptly Breese realized it was the woman who had led the slavers.
Then there were points of light in the air around her, points that, as they came closer, brightened into spheres that swam and moved around her. Breese still did not know what the objects were and she ignored them, thinking only of the woman who stood before her, the leader of the slavers, who was armed though only with a spear.
Breese raised her gun . . .
She did not think the woman had seen her yet, but one of the spheres moved quickly toward her. It glittered gold and silver in the air. Breese raised the gun and her finger tightened on the trigger.
The sphere slid past her, so close it brushed her skin.
There was a flash and a sharp, agonizing pain that cramped and twisted all her muscles and Breese screamed. She fell forward. The unfired gun slipped from numb fingers. She lay there paralyzed and helpless, barely aware enough to be considered conscious.
The woman lifted a spear and ran straight toward Breese, the point of the weapon aimed at Breese's throat.
At the last minute she turned the spear rapidly and brought the butt of it against Breese's head. The pain in her head was even worse than the pain she felt when the sphere touched her. But there was only a split second before she passed out.
Then a sort of vague awareness came back to her. She sensed there were others around her now. It was a trap. She'd walked into a goddamned trap. After another few seconds she was lifted up and thrown over someone's shoulder.
That someone started off at a steady trot, Breese bouncing up and down painfully on her stomach against his shoulder. Her vocal cords were regaining their ability but only enough to allow her to manage a groan. Someone near by laughed. She thought it was the woman who appeared to lead this group.
Breese passed out again.
She knew she was conscious again when she became aware of the aches that seemed to be in every muscle of her body. She groaned and shook her head to clear it, then opened her eyes.
She was standing upright, tied tightly to a post by thin leather thongs. She closed her eyes again and strained against the thongs. They dug more deeply into her, cutting into her wrists.
Breese forced her eyes open. Standing not far from her she could make out a figure, blurry and unfocused. She fought to focus her vision. Someone laughed. The blurry figure came closer to her and she saw who it was. The woman who had led the slavers.
Breese's body ached. She had a lot of bruises. Something tasted bad and when she tried to swallow, she realized a rag was tied in her mouth, like the ones that had been tied in the prisoners' mouths.
She looked around and could see other figures nearby, also tied to posts. She could see the face of one of them, the girl who had seen her in the tunnel.
There was laughter again and Breese looked back at her captor. The woman said, "By now, fool, you realize what you've gotten yourself into."
The woman moved closer as to Breese. "My name is Tarice. I own you now, until I find a buyer to sell you to. Do you understand? Nod your head."
Breese made no effort to move.
"So you're the stubborn type, are you? I was hoping you were."
She held something up, let the light glint from metal in her hand. Breese recognized her own Elder power weapon.
Abruptly the woman pointed the gun in Breese's direction. Breese found herself staring directly into the aperture of the weapon's barrel and strained against her bonds in sudden panic. Tarice shifted the weapon slightly and fired it. There was blinding light and searing heat to Breese's right, as she twisted over to escape the blinding glare.
The woman laughed again.
"Do you understand your predicament now, fool?"
Gasping heavily behind the gag, Breese nodded her head.
After an hour or so, Breese gave up trying to work herself loose. She could hear occasional moans from the other prisoners who seemed to be as helpless and in as much discomfort as she was. She could smell food being cooked somewhere, but no one came to feed the prisoners. Between her bruises and her muscles aching from being tied, she thought it would be impossible to sleep, but she was wrong. It just wasn't comfortable, and despite her exhaustion she kept waking up from the pain. After a few minutes of vague consciousness she would go back to sleep.
Finally, one of the slavers came carrying a bowl of something that smelled somewhat like food. He was tall, as thin as Breese was, and bald. An ugly scar ran down the left side of his face. He removed the rag from Breese's mouth and then fed her from a ladle. The meal was a sort of stew, bland and unappetizing. He gave her two mouthfuls, then tended to the other prisoners.
When he was gone, Breese dozed again.
She woke to find herself surrounded by the floating spheres. They glowed pale, in several colors, and came quite close. They didn't touch her but she was terrified they would. There was easily a dozen of them.
"Where are you from?" asked a voice to her left.
She turned her head and saw Tarice, haughty and menacing, the gun she had taken from Breese beside her.
"The Opal Cavern," Breese found the strength to say. She had been there only a week, taken in by the cavern's kindly inhabitants. But a month ago they had been attacked by roaming marauders, forcing Breese to flee again. She could have named any of more than a dozen caverns she had lived in, willingly and unwillingly, in the past five years.
"What are you called?"
Tarice came around in front of Breese and spat on her.
She turned her attention to the other prisoners, being no more kind to them than she had to Breese.
The spheres stayed floating around Breese. She remembered how painful it had been to be touched by just one of them and could only imagine being touched by all of them, one after another, or even all at the same time. It would be fatal, she knew. Not fast -- but fatal -- and painful, very painful.
After a while, Tarice left and the spheres drifted along after her.
So much, Breese thought, for good intentions. Her efforts had saved no one, and given Tarice one more slave to sell. She gave up straining against the thongs that held her to the post because she was making no headway toward working herself free, unless you counted bruises, cut and painful welts. Her body ached and she didn't think she would be able to stand if not for the post she was tied to.
The other captives watched her as if waiting for her to speak, or get herself in more trouble. A single guard, the bald, scar-faced man, had been left to watch them. At his waist he wore both a short knife and a long knife. The long one looked sharp and heavy enough to decapitate with. He was watching Breese, with narrowed eyes. He looked half asleep but she knew he was not.
The post was smooth, so there was no hope of cutting the bonds free on a handy jagged edge. Nor was she able to slide to a sitting position and possibly find a sharp rock on the cavern floor.
She was cramped and sore and scared, and saw nothing to turn to her own advantage.
Though the other captives watched her, they did not speak. The young girl was quiet now, but she breathed heavily and shook with fear. Breese did not find herself speculating at all on why these people had been wandering in the caverns to let themselves be caught by this small slaver band. It was too familiar a story. There was plenty of evidence in the caves of the highly advanced culture that had constructed them so many thousands of years ago, but those people had fled the planet eons ago. The people left behind had not the knowledge or skill to maintain the level of civilization that once had flourished here, and life in the caverns had quickly become one of survival of the fittest. A few could survive by their wits, but many were victimized by those like Tarice who were willing to live by violence and ruthlessness, and at the cost of others' freedom.
At last Breese spoke out. "You, girl. What's your name?"
The girl looked up as if awakened from a dream -- or nightmare. She didn't speak.
"My name's Breese. Who are you?" Breese asked again.
One of the men answered for her. "She never talks. She screams, sometimes. The first night after she was captured, I couldn't get any sleep at all she screamed so much."
In a quiet voice, the girl said, "My name is Hyla."
"Well, what do you know about that? She can talk after all," the man said.
"And what are you called?" Breese asked him.
"Logan." He was about Breese's age, lean and muscular, strong enough to draw a good amount in a slave auction.
"And you?" Breese addressed the other man.
"What difference does it make?" he snarled. He was a bit older, lean and muscular like Logan, but taller and a couple years older. Like Logan -- and like Breese for that matter -- he was nearly naked. There was a reddish mark splashed across his chest, probably from a burn. He looked around at the others. "Ah, hell," he said. "I'm Portiver."
"Do any of you have any ideas?"
"Shut up," the guard said. He got to his feet and put his hand on the hilt of his knife. He looked around at the prisoners, but his eyes came back to Breese. "You talk too much."
"I'm sorry," Breese said. "Didn't mean to wake you up."
"Bitch. I wasn't asleep," he said. "You talk any more and I'll show you how awake I am."
In as even a tone as she could manage, she said, "You look awake enough to me."
"Oh, hell," said Logan. "Oh, goddamned hell."
"You shut up," the guard said. "Nobody'll think any the less of it if a slave's tongue is cut out. And it might increase your value some."
He moved toward Breese and stopped very close to her. He said, "I think I'm awake enough for what you're talking about."
"I bet you are."
"But don't go thinking that'll get you free from here. You're a prisoner and you'll still be one after we've gotten to know each other a little better."
Almost before she knew it, his mouth was on hers. The kiss was clumsy, his breath sour. When it was over he laughed and said, "Let's get on to the important stuff."
His knife was in his hand, flicking against the thongs that held her hands behind the post. She came away from it and he roughly pushed her to the floor. He shoved his knife back into its scabbard and began fumbling with Breese's clothes.
"I like it when they're willing like this," he said in her ear and laughed.
"I'm not that willing," she said.
She closed her hand around the hilt of his knife and yanked it out with amazing speed.
So intent on removing her clothes was the guard that he probably never realized what she was doing until it was too late. Breese had her arms around him. The knife was in his kidney and out again before he could react. His cry came out as a gasp. Then she drove the point into his throat and the gasp turned into a gurgle.
She rolled out from under him, covered in blood. She got to her feet and left him dying while she leaped to the girl Hyla, who was closest and slashed at the thongs that held her. Then, just as quickly, she freed the men and the other woman.
There was only one exit from the chamber. Logan and the other man spun around and started for it, quickly.
"Hold on," Breese said.
They looked around.
"We don't know how close to here Tarice is."
"Does it matter?" asked the man with the burn scar. "She's probably asleep."
"I bet she's a light sleeper," Breese said.
"She's right," the other woman said. "And if Tarice wakes up before we have our hands on her, she's got that ray pistol."
She was as thin as most cavern dwellers, with short-cropped blonde hair, a pretty face and haunted eyes. Breese said, "Do you have a name?"
"Arra," the woman replied.
Breese went to the exit and peered out. She could smell meat cooking. "She's still awake," she said. "It smells like she and her friends are eating. Probably one of them will be along soon with something for the guard."
She had been brought here virtually unconscious. She saw now that the room was entered by a narrow tunnel with no light. She couldn't tell how long the tunnel was.
She went back to the guard and pulled the long knife from the scabbard at his waist. It was old, with an ornate handle, but the blade looked cared for and sharp. It was a hacking knife, like a machete.
She went to the wood pole she had been tied to and with several strong hacks, cut it in two. The chopping made loud noises, but apparently no one heard. She lowered the top half to the floor and went to one of the other poles and cut it. Logan picked up the first one and she handed the second one to Portiver. Then she cut the third one in two and kept that half for herself.
The short-haired woman, Arra, found a broken pole even longer than the others, lying against the wall. She picked it up.
"What about me?" the girl, Hyla asked.
Breese said, "Here," and tossed her the long knife. Hyla quickly cut herself a pole.
Apparently, Breese realized, the slavers were well set up here. There were still four unoccupied posts set into the ground.
She went back to the guard, undid his belt and slipped off the two scabbards. She gave one to Hyla and slid the other one on her own belt.
Now, then, she thought. To business. She turned around.
And there, not a yard in front of her hung one of the spheres.
She did not know if the thing could communicate with Tarice, or if it even recognized that she was free from the post and ought not to be. But she didn't think it wise to take chances. With two hands, she pulled up the section of post she was holding and jabbed it straight at the sphere.
She struck it straight on. The sphere shattered like fragile glass. A bright yellow light flared where the shattered sphere had been; probably enough voltage to have killed her if she'd struck it with anything but wood. But the flare died as quickly as it had come, leaving a smell of something burning, and bits and pieces of ash and debris that fell or fluttered to the cavern floor.
She heard someone gasp with astonishment -- one of the men. She went back to the door of the cavern.
She could still smell the odor of cooking and thought it was probably strong enough to mask the stench of the destroyed sphere. She peered out through the opening and saw nothing. She wondered, now what?