by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Kithri stood at the entrance to the dome and scanned the surrounding brush for any signs of discovery. Behind her, Brianna alternated between cursing under her breath and choking back sobs as she and Lennart sorted through the wreckage. Kithri kept her eyes away from the interior of the laboratory. The waste--the vicious, wanton waste--was more than she could bear. The central room, once filled with marvels of technology, was little better than a junkyard. Some equipment had been carried off, but what had not had been systematically rendered useless. Splintered glass and twisted metal housings lay everywhere, mingled with record books in sodden reagent-soaked lumps. Acids still smoked from the rubble that had been the main computer.
Kithri could understand disabling the communications gear, but to deliberately destroy scientific instruments... She remembered when her father would have given all he had for such treasure, now smashed past any hope of salvage.
The pirates hadn't overlooked much of value, although Brianna's sonic tuner was still functional and Lennart had found some short lengths of monofilament rope. The emergency medical kit was gone, along with the water purification supplies and the best of the survival clothing. They'd also taken the tangle, Brianna's only effective weapon, and irreparably disabled her surface transport. There was no way Brianna could have gone searching for Kithri across the forest-covered Plain.
Kithri's fingers ached from gripping the handle of her stungun. The camp and the surrounding bushes still looked peaceful, but it was only a matter of time before the escape was discovered, and every passing moment increased the chances of their being tracked here. She took a deep breath, hoping she wouldn't jump out of her skin at the first sign of trouble.
Lennart emerged from the laboratory and finished packing the rope lengths, along with some clothes and empty water containers. Brianna rummaged in a disorderly heap of papers.
"What are you bothering with those for?" Kithri scowled. "I said to take only what we need--"
"Ah!" Brianna slid a thin sheaf into her pack along with the other gear. "My field maps!"
Kithri held her breath practically the whole distance to the city. As they darted from one clump of brush to the next, she felt entirely too exposed. She wanted solid walls around her while they planned their strategy.
Too damned much time spent down jaydium tunnels. It's better to see the enemy coming.
The city, Brianna insisted, was the last place the pirates would think to search for them if their escape was discovered. The three of them took cover in the squat lavender pyramid near the western outskirts. Its walls, although opaque from the outside, admitted a diffuse pastel light. Shards of tinted glass cilia, once as thick as fur over the building's exterior, littered the street beyond. The inside walls were smooth, and there was no trace of internal furnishing. The arched doorway faced southward, hidden from both the parkland and the center of the city.
In response to questions from Kithri and Lennart, Brianna produced a wealth of detail about each building's exact dimensions and wall thicknesses, as well as the chemical composition of the various materials.
"The construction techniques are like nothing we've ever seen," Brianna said. "They're neither assembled, like brick or adobe structures, nor layered like concrete over reinforced steel. The material is homogenous, both by penetration analysis and cross-section. It's as if the stuff had been molded, although I don't understand how you could smelt something that size."
"Smelt?" Lennart asked, looking astonished. He='d been sitting hunched over, listening to Brianna's descriptions.
"The material has some of the characteristics of silica-based materials. It resembles organically adulterated glass. Sometimes it will shatter and leave a sharp edge, like those capillary needles outside, but other structures that look equally delicate are virtually unbreakable. Yet my instruments can't detect any chemical difference between them. The material exhibits much of the diversity of living tissue. Of course, despite the odd organic contaminants, it's quite definitely mineral."
Kithri thought of the mysteries of her own Stayman that she'd had to pass by for more immediate concerns--the tunnels, the desert ecology in the presence of plentiful bedrock water, the jaydium that had been the focus of her father's researches...all the questions that she would never have the chance to answer now.
"Tell me again about the pirates," she said.
"There are five of them," Brianna said. "From the Tribes, though that won't mean anything to you. They're nomadic, with whole families spending their lives on their mother ships. Most live on the fringes of trade and engage in low grade charter. They're a closed society and won't allow our anthropologists to study them, not even for the usual living-cultures stipend. When times are hard, it's common for them to slip across the line of what's strictly lawful. When they turn raider, they can't afford to take prisoners--air and food cost too much. I don't think anything is known of their private customs or languages."
"We can understand them, though," Lennart said.
Brianna nodded. "Yes, the translator I implanted in you handles the basics well enough."
Kithri looked from Lennart's face, set and tight-lipped, to Brianna's. The other woman no longer looked sweetly pretty, but taut and pale in the lavender light. She'd tied her flyaway golden hair into a knot at the nape of her neck. A purpling bruise had developed on one cheekbone, with several more on her chest and throat.
"This bunch is spaceborn," Brianna went on, "so they're big, but they're not as strong as they look because of all that time spent off-planet. Their bones are thin and their postural muscles fatigue easily in normal gravity."
"They were strong enough to take the three of you," Kithri pointed out.
"Hell," Lennart said, "they could have sat on us and we'd have been out. Bri wasn't kidding when she said big."
Brianna shivered, her green eyes hard and flat. "They have blasters and heavyweight rods with an illegal convulsant setting."
A vision arose unbidden behind Kithri's eyes--Eril, his back arched, jaw clenched, muscles locked in spasm, eyes white with pain...
Her throat constricted painfully. She forced herself to ask, "Is there any...any permanent damage from the rod?"
"There shouldn't be." Brianna lowered her gaze and cleared her throat. "Not physical, anyway."
"What else?" Kithri asked.
"The leader's Teeg," Brianna said. "Bald, albino eyes, lots of hidden weapons. And not stupid. His second's called Quick. He knows he'll never have the top spot and gets whatever he can from backing Teeg. I've seen the same character type at the Institute. I didn't catch any other names, but I'd mark the red one as a pathological sadist."
"All male?" Kithri asked.
"Is that an issue?"
Ignoring Lennart's startled glance, Kithri studied the other woman, sensing the steel beneath the flower-petal exterior. She didn't like Brianna, but she was beginning to trust her, just as she was beginning to not trust Lennart. But she needed help from both of them. "You tell me."
"They didn't try raping me," Brianna said slowly. "Not yet, anyway, and Teeg at least should know he'd have to inactivate my infraprotection--"
"Infraprotection. Aren't you bio-equipped against sexual assault?"
Kithri shook her head. People on Stayman came together for all sorts of reasons besides love--loneliness, egotism, the easier path after seasons of harassment--which made her think of Hank. Actual rape was uncommon, even in Port Ludlow, which was why Dowdell's attack had shocked her into such a violent reaction. Yet Brianna casually referred to the possibility and was surgically prepared to resist it. What did this say about her precious Dominion? Kithri was not at all sure that this world, no matter how green and inviting, offered any real advantages over her own.
Brianna finished enumerating the weapons she had seen and those probably hidden. "And all we've got is your little survival-gun."
"We can't meet those goons force to force," Kithri said, "not even if we each had a gun."
"And I'm not about to go firing a gun at anybody," Lennart added in a ragged voice.
Kithri ran one hand through her ragged curls, thinking hard. "We'll have to separate them... That shouldn't be too hard, here in the city. We know our way around, or rather, Brianna does, and with her maps, I can manage."
"Separate them?" Brianna arched her eyebrows expressively. "How do you propose to do that? Invite them individually to a festive dance?"
"We use you as bait."
Brianna's face turned three shades whiter. Spots of color stood out on her cheeks like dabs of fresh-spilled blood.
"Listen, as far as they know, they left you both stunned and tied up," Kithri explained. "All we have to do is let them catch a glimpse of you--free and following them. They'll send someone after you--one of the underlings most likely--and I'll stun him. Then we repeat the process."
"What if something goes wrong and they capture her again?" Lennart said. He shook his head. "If it's got to be anyone, I'll go--"
"They'll send more men after you than they will after her," Kithri pointed out. "You're bigger and--that's what I'd do in their place. Besides, I'll need you for back up."
"Back up? I couldn't fire a gun even if you gave one to me."
"I don't know if I can..." Brianna wet her lips nervously.
"What's to stop them from sending more than one after her?" Lennart said.
"Why should they? If they're not used to gravity, they won't want to do any more running around than they have to. They'll have to leave someone behind to guard Eril. Besides, I don't hear you making any better suggestions."
"First we have to find them," Brianna said grudgingly.
"All right, so let's find them."
The pirates left a trail of broken crystals that anyone could follow. Kithri grimaced at the imprint of a boot across a fallen, sapphire-tinted cylinder.
"Don't they care what they destroy?" Lennart asked.
"About these artifacts, no," Brianna said in a tightly controlled voice. "You can't eat or breathe them, so they're of no value in space. All the pirates want now is the jaydium." She brushed a pile of glittering splinters with her boot. "It wasn't this bad when I first came."
They heard the pirates before they saw them, masculine voices booming through the ruins. Kithri caught a glimpse of them along a colonnade of opalescent spires, moving through the overlapping multihued shadows. Before the three of them scuttled back under cover, she counted five big men dressed in skin-tight jackets and pants of black and midnight blue. Beneath their barrel-chested torsos, their legs looked unnaturally thin. One bald head gleamed in the sunlight.
Eril stood on the far side of the group, flanked by two guards. His hands were bound behind him. The leather holster that had once carried his force whip hung empty, and his sleeveless jacket was missing. Kithri thought he looked like a sand-leopard in a pen of black bulls.
Kithri pulled Brianna and Lennart back into a alcove of garnet and lapis, praying they had not been seen. Long heartbeats later, there was still no outcry, and she breathed easier. Brianna reached into her pack and drew out the map, silently pointing out their location. Kithri traced out their route with her finger as Lennart looked over her shoulder. Brianna nodded in agreement. One more careful scan of the map, and then Kithri gestured for her to put it away and leave the pack.
Kithri tried not to imagine what Brianna must be feeling as she headed toward the pirates' voices. She hadn't even asked whether Brianna was willing to risk herself to rescue the two men, who were not her people. She didn't owe them any loyalty. Yet Kithri had been furious with Eril when he presumed to make the same sort of decision for her. Now it was too late to say anything to either one of them.
Kithri tightened the pack on her shoulders and waited. Before too much time had passed, she heard male voices shouting and then a high, thin shriek, not of shock or pain but surprise. It was Brianna playing her part, she hoped, and not some unpleasant new development.
Kithri gestured to Lennart and took off at a run, following the planned route. Their pounding feet threw up puffs of sparkling powder. The particles smelled acrid, like jaydium gone bad.
Breathing harder and clenching her stungun, Kithri sprinted down the narrow corridor that connected two main avenues. Brianna raced into view, her arms pumping frantically. A black-clad pirate was almost upon her. They burst into a little circular courtyard, darting past the amethyst obelisk that stood at its heart. The grit on the ground lay thicker here, like drifted sand.
Suddenly Brianna skidded and slipped on the dust. She screamed, landing obliquely on one hip. But she had no time to regain her footing before the pirate backhanded her across the side of her face. Kithri heard the sickening whap! as Brianna's body flew into the air.
As Kithri slowed enough for a decent aim, a second pirate lumbered into the courtyard, breathing hoarsely as he rolled along at a heavy-footed lope. Lennart shoved Kithri aside, hurled himself into the air, and tackled the second pirate around his hips. They went down in a flurry of pulverized crystal. Lennart yelled something she couldn't understand.
She staggered from the glancing impact of his body, almost losing her balance. The dust made for unexpectedly slippery footing. In that moment, the first pirate whirled, spotted her and reached for something at his belt. She didn't recognize it, only his intent. She steadied the stungun with both hands and fired.
The pirate arched backwards, suspended in space, and for a moment Kithri feared the stungun's charge was too weak to numb his bulky body. He turned slowly towards her and she took a step backward. Then she saw the whites of his eyeballs, rolled up in his head. He landed with a thump! across Brianna's legs.
Lennart and the second pirate still wrestled on the ground, although Lennart was on top and seemed to have the larger man's arms pinned. Kithri took careful aim at the pirate's head and fired again. He went limp instantly.
Face flushed, Lennart nodded and got to his feet. He shoved the first pirate's body off Brianna while Kithri tucked her stungun through her belt and fumbled for the monofilament rope in the pack.
"Untranslatable," Brianna moaned as her eyes fluttered open. "Not again..."
"Are you all right?" Lennart asked. "Did he hit you hard?"
Brianna ran her fingertips over her jaw, wincing. "Obviously, he hit me hard." She sat up and nudged the fallen pirate with one foot. "My head feels like he's still sitting on it. I c-c-can't..." Her face turned gray and her eyes didn't seem to track properly. She propped her head in her hands, elbows supported on her bent knees, and for a moment she seemed to be steadier. Then she fell over sideways in a dead faint.
Cursing, Kithri scrambled to Brianna's side.
"Fellows!" barked a masculine voice from behind her. "Both fellows! Stand away from her!"
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