CHAPTER 3

As she feared, the answer to her question came sooner than she liked.

She heard voices and for a panicky moment had no idea where they came from.

The tunnel, of course. Breese moved a step toward it and then stopped. The sounds were louder, and she could see people.

Tarice emerged from the tunnel, followed by her guards. She saw that her captives were free and gave out a howl of anger.

Arra moved before any of the others. Holding the pole she had found, she rushed toward their captors and gave out a growl as blood thirsty as Tarice's had been. She stopped and gripped the pole in both hands and swung it at Tarice's head.

In her haste, she misjudged the distance and the pole struck Tarice a glancing blow that sent her to her knees. But it failed even to stun her. Tarice yanked out the power gun she had taken from Breese and aimed it at Arra.

Arra stopped. She took one step back as Tarice lowered her aim and blasted a patch of rock in front of where Arra was standing. In a shower of small bits of rock, a hole appeared in the floor of the cave. Arra's eyes widened with terror and she threw the pole away.

The guards ran into the cavern, their weapons -- long knives and sharpened sticks -- ready to prod the prisoners. Tarice went straight to Arra and hit her as hard as she could. Arra spun around and fell to the floor, crying out in pain.

One of the guards pushed Breese roughly toward a post. Breese's hands were bound with cruel tightness behind the post and she bit down a cry of pain. As soon as the guard finished with her, he went to help Tarice with Arra. Each of them grabbed her by an arm and dragged her to one of the posts and tied her to it. Then Tarice hit her again.

Arra's eyes were wide with fear and she moaned loudly with a mixture of pain and despair. Tarice stood back, looking at her with hatred. "I think it's time you had a lesson," she said. She was looking at Arra, but Breese knew she meant the lesson for all of them. Arra was to be an example.

Tarice and the guards moved back, away from the prisoners. Tarice raised her hand and gestured.

Out of the tunnel came several of the spheres, floating obediently forward. They moved toward Arra.

Arra cried out. Tarice said, "You don't even know what they can do, yet."

"I don't want to know," Arra said, terror stricken. "I'll do whatever you tell me. I won't try to escape again. Please. Please, keep them away from me --"

One by one, the different colored globes bounced and bobbled in the air and touched her, and withdrew. Each touch brought a flash of yellow light and a scream from Arra. Now the screams were continuous as the globes touched her again and again and the yellow flashes burst like fireworks around her body, marking her with scorches that sent a pungent, horrible smell into the air.

Then the globes stopped glancing against her and touched her and held on. They lingered against her flesh and the yellow blasts intensified as did her screams until, after several minutes, the screams abruptly stopped and Arra slumped forward, hanging dead from the post in her bonds.

The globes hung in the air as if waiting to be sure.

"Cut her loose," Tarice said to one of her guards. "And take her to the kitchen. If we can't sell her as a slave, at least we can make what use of her we can."

The guard drew his knife and cut Arra's dead body free of the post.

CHAPTER 4

Breese found herself shivering against the post.

It was not the cold, it was fear, an almost primordial fear that gripped and savaged her nerves, almost overpowering her ability to think.

That was the real threat. She had to think. Survival depended on thinking. If she could not bring herself to think she would remain the prisoner of these people, and she would be killed by them or by the people they sold her to.

She knew that they were not far from a trading cavern where people met on ostensibly neutral ground to trade for food and other goods.

There was no longer enough organization in the caverns for there to be any sort of real economy. But a barter system as primitive and old as mankind itself existed and there were places where people by agreement gave up their hostility to one another long enough to trade what they had for what they wanted. What Tarice had was her prisoners, and in one of those caverns she would undoubtedly find someone who wanted them and would offer her food or some other valuable commodity. Often the prisoners themselves would be regarded as food, as cattle to be dragged to slaughter.

There was a part of Breese that just wanted to give way and burst into hysterical sobs at the hopelessness of her position. But there was another part of her that knew better; a part that denied that hopelessness and rebelled against it. She strained against her bonds but that only caused them to cut painfully into her wrists.

She gave that up, but she did not give up the anger that was being born in her. There had to be a way, there was always a way. She was fully conscious now. She stood erect and found that doing so reduced the strain on her bindings and thereby lessened her pain, though not by much. Her muscles ached and she felt the abuse she had suffered in the past few hours. Her fear was channeling itself into anger and where fear had told her to give up, anger shouted inside her: never!

But another part of her mind was considering the word: how?

Her bindings were leather thongs, expertly tied. And tighter than before, this time. Blood and the sweat from her body might moisten the leather enough to cause it to stretch but she did not think it likely it would stretch enough. Slipping free of the loops around her wrists would cost her some skin. And as tight as the bindings felt, she doubted she could slip them off anyway.

"Does anyone have any ideas?" someone said to Breese's left.

She looked around. It was Logan, tied to the post next to her. Beyond him she saw the man called Portiver. He said, "I do."

"Let's hear it," Breese said.

"Where did you come from?" he asked.

"What?"

"You must have come from somewhere," Portiver said. "A cavern where people live."

Logan looked round at him. "Are you suggesting what I think you are?"

Forcefully, Portiver said, "These people are slavers. They want prisoners they can sell at a trader's cavern."

"And how in hell can that possibly help us?" Breese said.

"It can help us plenty," Portiver said. "For one thing, it'll show her we have some worth aside from our ability to fill a cook pot. If we tell her where she can find new prisoners, she might let us go."

"You fool," Logan said.

"I'm not the fool. Think about it. She realizes she can get fifteen or twenty new captives to drag off to the slave pens north of here and she got them with our help. She'll need more guards so it's likely she'll recruit us to watch her new prisoners, isn't it? Isn't it?"

"And you just happen to know a place where there's a dozen or two women and children, huh?" Logan said.

"No, no," Portiver said. "If I did, I'd already have bought my freedom. But one of folks must know where some gang's holed up. It's your chance to save all our lives."

"And who'll save the lives of the gang she attacks?" Breese asked.

"What's that to us?" Portiver said, with a sneer.

There was no point in talking to a man like that, Breese decided. No point at all.

Suddenly Portiver yelled our Tarice's name.

He yelled it loudly and he kept yelling for five minutes or so before she came.

She had her knife in her hand and moved straight toward Portiver when she saw he was the one yelling.

"Hold on, hold on," Portiver said. "Don't use that knife just yet. And I'm not the one to use it on."

Tarice stopped and eyed him suspiciously. "And who is?" she asked.

He jerked his head toward Logan. "Him, maybe. Him and that girl next to him."

"Oh? What have they done."

"They come from caverns near here where there's a whole gang, but mostly women and children. Think about it. Women and children and just a few able bodied men to protect them. Everybody just waiting to be caught and led off to the slave marts."

There was a moment of silence. Portiver looked over at Breese. "She was just saying she come from a nursery where she helped to look after a whole slew of children under ten. Boys and girls. What do the slavers pay for boys and girls these days?"

"Are you lying?" Tarice asked.

Portiver gave a chuckle. "Ask her."

Tarice turned toward Breese.

"Of course he's lying," Breese said. "I've been alone for more than six months, ever since a raiding party hit the cavern I lived in. I was probably the only one to get away, too."

"Didn't take her long to make up that story," Portiver said.

"I didn't make it up," Breese said.

"You bitch," Tarice said. "You look like a liar to me."

Breese indicated Portiver. "And he doesn't?"

Tarice gave a grim sort of smile and said, "You got a point there."

She came toward Breese, holding the knife at her waist, point out. Breese didn't like the look on her face.

Portiver said, "She'll tell you where her friends are with a little persuasion."

"Will you?" Tarice said. She gave Breese a long look and Breese felt fear as she looked back at Tarice's eyes. She thought now that the woman was probably insane, but whether or not that was true, she was certainly filled with bloodlust.

Tarice held the knife up and let light glint from its blade. Then, with a sudden movement that cause Breese to give a small cry, she put it back in its scabbard.

She pulled the power gun from her waist and pointed it at Breese's left eye. "Can you take me where your friends are?" Tarice asked.

Breese's mind was working rapidly, desperately, almost incoherently. But it was working.

She said, "I can do better than that. I can draw you a map."

The gun lowered and beyond it Breese could see a change in the look on Tarice's face. Interest. Tarice was interested now. The game changed and Tarice was thinking rapidly; Breese could tell that by her eyes. Breese was thinking also.

"A map?"

"You could send scouts to check and see if I'm telling the truth." She spoke rapidly, desperately. "You could keep me alive that long and see how useful I can be to you."

"Me too," Portiver said. "Let's not be forgetting about me."

"Shut up," Tarice told him. Then, to Breese: "What about this map?"

"It'll show you the way to the cavern where I've been staying. You'll find people there, a small tribe. Most of the men will probably be out hunting, but the women and children will be there. You'll find food and weapons, and work animals to carry them."

"How many slaves?"

"A dozen or more, and they're in good health. They'll bring a fortune at the slave pens. Better than we will."

Portiver cut in. "I don't know about that. Me, I'm maybe too old to bring a real price. My value is as one of your generals, not as a slave. I can help you build an army --"

"Shut up!" Tarice yelled at him. His mouth clamped shut.

To Breese, Tarice said, "What sort of weapons?"

"Power guns. Like that one in your hand. There's a whole store of them there."

"Won't the men have taken them with them on the hunt?"

"Not all of them. The spares will be in the cavern. You can surprise the women and take the cavern without so much as a fight, and get the spare guns for yourself. The place is well hidden. There'll be a guard but no one really believes anyone will find them, so there won't be much resistance. Later, you can set an ambush for the men when they come back and catch them by surprise, too."

"You make it sound like a dream."

"It's no dream. It's real. How many power guns do you want? And not just hand guns. Ray rifles as well. Weapons that can fire clear across a large cavern."

Even Portiver had fallen silent. He was listening as raptly as Breese was.

Breese said, "Just cut me loose and get me something to draw a map on."

"How do I know you aren't planning some sort of trick?" Tarice said.

"Do I look like I want to end up in a cook pot?" Breese said. "I can be valuable to you. Very valuable. I can get you enough power guns to conquer any gang on this continent."

Tarice's hand had slowly lowered while Breese talked. The muzzle of her gun was almost touching Breese's navel now.

Abruptly, Tarice shoved the gun into her waistband again. She yanked out her knife, slipped around behind Breese and cut her bonds. Breese yanked the thongs from her wrists and began to massage them.

"Now show me that map?" Tarice said.

"I need something to draw on."

Tarice whirled around, looking for something. She went to the tunnel and yelled for her men.

As soon as her back was turned, Breese snatched up one of the poles that had been cut down before.

She swung it as hard as she could and slammed it against the side of Tarice's head. Tarice gave a cry and dropped to the floor. Breese could tell by the way she dropped that she was out and would be for several minutes.

And orange sphere drifted in from the tunnel and moved toward her.

She shifted toward it, raising the pole in front of her. The sphere dove toward her with sudden speed. The end of the pole lifted toward it, catching it head on. It shattered like a glass ornament and exploded in a burst of energy that spent itself harmlessly in midair.

Breese bent down next to Tarice and found her energy gun and the knife. She discarded the pole and took Tarice's weapons and stood back up.

There were spheres filing in from the tunnel.

She aimed the raygun at the foremost sphere and blew it apart. Portiver was yelling at her to cut him loose but she shut his screaming out of her mind and fired at the spheres again and again.

Two more exploded. The others hesitated, as if unable to decide on a course of action, and hovered bobbing in the air. They made fine targets that way.

Breese moved over to Logan and with the knife quickly slashed his bonds. Then she slipped behind Hyla and cut her loose.

That left Portiver. She hesitated and he watched her, his eyes wide with terror. He said, "I knew you'd outwit them. It was my plan. I worked it out in my head and it went just like I knew it would -- get the girl loose, I said to myself. Giver her a chance and she'll free the rest of us. Oh, wasn't it a clever plan, girl? You owe it all to me, you know."

Logan was bent over Tarice. He held out his hand and said, "Give me your knife, Breese. Give me it."

Breese considered it then made her decision. She slipped the knife into its sheath and bent down. She found a strip of leather and bound Tarice's hands behind her back. "Help me get her up against that post," she said.

"A waste of time," Logan said. "Kill her quick and be done with her. You'll regret it otherwise."

"Help me get her up against that post."

Muttering under his breath, Logan helped lift Tarice. She was coming around now. They shoved her against the post and Logan held her there while Breese found more strips to tie her with. Within moments Tarice was helpless against the post.

She was fully conscious now. She saw the weapon in Breese's hand. "Don't kill me," she said. "Not like this."

"Don't give me any ideas," Breese said. For a moment she actually considered firing at her helpless prisoner, killing her here and now. She certainly deserved it. She certainly would be a danger if she survived.

"Give me the gun," Logan said. "If you're squeamish, I'm not."

"He's right," said Portiver. "You need to kill the bitch. But do it quickly and cut ol' Portiver loose before any more deros show up to complicate our pathetic lives for us."

"What about him?" she asked Logan.

"Portiver? You'd be smart to kill him, too. Neither one of them will ever do you any favors. And if you leave them alive and ever run into them again, you'll regret it."

"Oh, that's a nasty thing he's saying," Portiver moaned. "I worked this all out in my head, knowing things would come out okay if only I could get her to cut you loose. It was I told her you could draw a map, wasn't it?"

"No, it was me told her I could draw a map," Breese said. "Let's get out of here, Logan."

"And just leave them?"

"Is that the way to repay all I done for you?" Portiver whined.

"Someone will find them," she said. "Or else one of them will get free and decide what happens to the other one. Either way we'll be long gone by the time that happens."

"I still say you'll regret it," Logan said.

Breese started off down the tunnel. Logan was right, of course. A part of her knew he was right.

But she went on anyway, and Logan followed after her. And Tarice and Portiver called after them, and then cursed them. But their voices melted into the distance and Breese paid them no heed.

the end

CONTENTS