The author Marion Zimmer Bradley (MZB) wrote a series of science fiction/fantasy novels telling the tales of the inhabitants of the world of Darkover. These novels cover millennia of history: from the crash landing of a Terran colony ship; the rise of the ruling feudal, telepathic class known as ‘The Comyn’; the rediscovery of the planet by the Terran and beyond. To give you a breakdown of the stories of Darkover would be doing the author, MZB, a disservice. I heartily recommend her stories to all those who enjoy fan fiction. This story is intended as a tribute, and not in anyway disrespectful, to MZB who wrote of class inadequacies, feminism, homophobia, bigotry and intolerance before P.C. and zero tolerance legislation. I learned so much from her stories.
I have deliberately not included any of MZB’s characters other than in passing reference.
The Sentinel, as we know, is a fun series, a concept in which I have been playing happily for a few years. It tells of watchmen who use their preternatural enhanced senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste, and, perhaps, senses beyond those five to protect and guard their chosen clans.
Wendy was kind enough to beta this story
Comments/feedback would be really nice.
The Sentinel of Darkover
The day that James Ellison arrived on the Protected Planet of Cottman IV, the Terran Federation ended. The massive bureaucracy that ruled hundreds of thousands of planets collapsed as he stepped onto the tarmac of the spaceport. The space cruiser that had carried him from a space station that hung on the edge of the Orion Nebula to the planet of Cottman IV took off seconds after the last passenger disembarked. Blasting away to life – Captain Ellison suspected – as a pirate ship on the outer rim.
In another lifetime he would have taken out the captain of the vessel and then continued on his mission, yet his instructions were clear: head to Cottman IV with all alacrity and allow for no distractions.
A pale, pale worm of a man ran up to the ranger and gibbered aimlessly, pointing at the red sky above and then the exhaust fumes spiralling around their feet.
“They left. They left. I spoke to the captain. He said I could travel with him.”
“He lied.” Captain Ellison dismissed the man, leaving him kneeling on the tarmac. He strode across the spaceport field. The area was barren, devoid of the normal engineers and storage transportation teams that should be scurrying around suites of vessels cycling through the busy spaceport. Ahead the spaceport was dark. The installation was empty. Scowling, Ellison passed through the building. The security teams were absent and customs were non-existent at the abandoned colony – or so he thought.
As he stepped from Federation, white, clean territory and into the red-tinged, organic world of Cottman IV, a curiously accented voice demanded, “Your blaster,”
Ellison looked at the man from tip to toe. He was a strange figure, but Jim was well travelled and had seen stranger species in his time. It was the human’s clothes that drew his eye. Quaint was perhaps the nicest way to put it. Rather than the utilitarian synthetic tunic and form fitting trousers of the Federation, the man wore rich, jewel-tones: blue jacket, sapphire vest and a silken shirt. Layers to protect against the biting cold. He even wore a cape with a fur lining, for Gods’ sake. The embroidery at its neck and cuffs was intricate. The blue of his clothes and the deep dark red of his hair against the glowering burgundy backdrop of the evening sky made Jim’s eyes water. He blinked and concentrated on the man’s aquiline features.
“No distant weapons.”
“You want me to hand over my blaster?”
The red head sighed tiredly. “Here on Darkover,” he said as if talking to a child, “we have something called the Compact which forbids the use of weapons which reach farther than the length of your arm.”
Ellison scowled at the man, somehow blaming him for the inadequacy of his superior’s coded message. It wasn’t like Simon Banks to leave out something so fundamental.
“No.” His weapon was his best friend.
“Return to the compound.” The man gestured with a long hand back to the echoingly empty building from which Jim had just emerged.
“There’s nothing there.”
“No distant… distance,” he corrected, “weapons are allowed on Darkover.”
Jim had barely been on the planet half an hour and he was already at a disadvantage. He ground his teeth together. Belatedly, he registered that a cohort of men all dressed alike in dark blue tunics and trousers stood behind the long-limbed red head. Some sort of police force?
There was little choice. He either handed over his weapon of choice and continued his mission or he returned to the Federation. Reluctantly, Jim unholstered his bulky, high energy, armour piercing blaster and set it on the rickety wooden table before the standing man.
“And the other one,” the officer demanded, his slate grey eyes were piercing and Jim had the strangest sensation that the man was laughing at him. Jim squatted down and withdrew his snapper from its ankle holster.
The man sighed tiredly. “And the third one.”
Jim shook his energy wand out of his sleeve and set it next to the other weapons. “That’s all.”
The officer nodded, “Are you claiming asylum?”
“I have no need for asylum.”
“Why then have you come to Darkover… Cottman IV?” the man seemed interested in his answer.
“I wish to speak to someone in authority.”
Once again, Jim knew that the man was laughing at him. “I am ‘someone in authority’.”
“Not the gatekeeper,” Jim said disparagingly, “the head security.”
The red head did not react but the cadre of guards, in their blue and silver tunics and capes, glared as one.
“I am Alaric Lanart-Alar, I am the head of security.”
“Really? And you’re watching the door? Haven’t you got anything better to do?”
This time the man smiled. “Where better to watch to ensure that Federation undesirables do not come to our planet?”
“Well, I’m here ‘cause you’ve got one already, and he probably came through this spaceport.”
“Not on my watch, Ranger Ellison.”
Jim sighed inwardly. “Is there somewhere more private where we can discuss it rather than out in the open?”
“This way.” Alaric gestured expansively. Jim moved to fall in behind the man, but was promptly displaced by two of the guards and the other four moved to bracket him in between them. Jim might not have his weapons but that did not mean that he was defenceless. Alaric looked back over his shoulder and smiled. “We’re just going to my offices where we can talk in relative security, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“I’m not concerned.”
He had had little time to read up on the history of Cottman IV, known to the inhabitants as Darkover, preferring to study the language tapes that Simon had seen fit to include in his briefing package. The capital city was called Thendara, but that was the limit of his knowledge. The buildings were constructed of stone, bricks and mortar rather than plast-steel and extruded plastics. It was like moving back in time. He had only seen cities like this in medieval vid dramas. But vids had not illustrated the wind chilling cold that chapped his skin and invigorated his senses. The streets twisted around, heading upwards to the immense, white citadel that dominated the horizon. The buildings were changing as they walked. The windows were bigger with more clear planes, instead of small, murky sugar glass panes. The buildings’ stone work was well tended and painted. There was a clear class divide in the city.
Alaric led him to a large mansion outside the wall of the citadel. Jim paused at the entrance, looking up at the towering citadel above.
“The Comyn are the rulers of this world.”
“Yes, the Terranan call us a,” Alaric hunted for the word, “theocracy?”
“Monarchy. Monarch as in King,” Jim supplied. “Theocracy is something different, has to do with churches.”
“We have a council of representatives of the Seven Domains.”
“They are formed entirely of the Comyn aristocrats.”
Alaric’s brow furrowed as he translated the Terran Standard words. “Yes,” he said slowly, “they rule. It is complicated, but it works for Darkover.”
Jim shrugged phlegmatically. The Federation government was falling to pieces around its proverbial ears. Maybe the Darkovian aristocracy would be better? He doubted it, preferring democracy. But this wasn’t his world. Their government organisational structure was not his concern. Prior to the debacle which was currently engulfing the Federation democracy, the planet of Darkover had been given Protected Status, and had been classified as vulnerable to cultural exposure. For all intents and purposes the Darkovian government and its people had been allowed to progress without the overt exposure to the influence of the Terran way of life. Eventually the benefits of Terran medicine, culture, arts, democracy would have overrun the existing government -- Jim had seen it happen too often not to know that -- and Darkover would have joined the Federation. But the very democracy of the Federation had defeated itself. The government had been overrun and was collapsing.
Alaric directed him in to a small office. A warm brazier sat in the corner and Jim welcomed the heat.
“So what brings you here?” Alaric asked without any preamble. “You wear the black garb of a Terranan Ranger. What brings a ranger to Darkover? You have no--” he paused searching for the word, “--legislation?”
“You have no jurisdiction, Ranger Ellison.”
“Obviously my superior Colonel Banks contacted you, otherwise you wouldn’t know my name. Why don’t you cut to the chase?”
Alaric smiled secretively. “I have only the barest details. You play your ‘cards close to your chest’, you are very closed.”
Jim’s brow furrowed trying to understand the words; Alaric’s standard was very good, but his words had been a little convoluted. “I am in pursuit of a fugitive.”
Alaric settled behind his desk and planted his feet on the wooden table. “And?”
“He has a number of pseudonyms: Adam Trilys, Karad inal --he’s a psychopath, thief, slaver and murderer. His last co-ordinates set him in the vicinity of this planet two standard months ago. His vessel was in distress, and a mayday was picked up.”
“The Terrans left at the spaceport have reported no emergency landings.”
Jim scratched his jaw line. “He could have used an escape pod and landed anywhere. This is the only viable planet in the system.”
“So this psychopath may not even be on Darkover?”
“My superior believes that he is.”
Alaric shifted, his feet dropped with a thud to the floor, he leaned over the desk and his grey eyes were piercing. “Why come here?
“My boss sent me to find this murderer.”
“Ah, so duty drives you?” Alaric said. “Your Federation is dying; you might never be able to leave our planet. To what authority will you give this psychopath?”
“I’ll hand Adam Trilys over to you if I can’t return him to Ranger Central. You don’t want this guy on your soil.”
“Tell me of your Banks -- why didn’t he release you from service to an authority that no longer exists and send you home?”
“Adam Trilys is a criminal and a murderer,” Jim repeated.
Alaric smiled wolfishly. Jim found himself stepping backwards and folding his arms over his chest defensively.
“Where will you find this man?” Alaric asked.
Jim had read Adam’s file backwards and forwards. The reasons for the man’s presence on Darkover made little or no sense. He was a technology-thief selling to the highest bidder when he was not selling his skills as an assassin. Adam Trilys did not fit on the world of Darkover. If the Federation was truly going to fall into the Dark Ages he should have fled to criminal underworld of Kurltwurld or Chril not the medieval backwater of Cottman IV.
“This is the capital, he’ll gravitate here.”
“Hmmm, you need a guide.”
“A guide?” Jim snarled, off kilter and mystified. Alaric had added an inflection to the word, giving it a lilt which made it more than the Terran Standard word for a tour guide through Thendara. Jim could almost suspect that the red head was talking of a sentinel’s guide.
“Yes, but one that knows both the Terranan ways and the criminal side of Thendara. None of my subordinates have good command of your tongue.”
“Banks gave me language tapes. I have a rudimentary grasp of your Casta.”
“Casta? Curious. I would have given you tapes of the Common Trade tongue.”
Jim shrugged. Alaric seemed to be looking for angles where there were none. Banks had probably given him access to the only tapes that he could find.
“I think that you should go to your home and leave this Adam Trilys to me. Go home before the infrastructure of your Terranan Federation collapses and there are no more spaceships for two-three or more generations coming to my planet.”
Jim laughed hollowly. The ultimatum was plainly placed: why are you here when the Federation is going to Hell in a Handbasket? “I don’t have a home planet - I am a Ranger.”
“You are either a man of great integrity, a man who has no home or a man with a vendetta. Or perhaps a man who believes that he has nothing to lose?”
Jim did not comment.
“Perhaps,” Alaric continued, “You are all four. No, perhaps three.”
Jim ignored the strange meanderings. “Do I have your permission to pursue this criminal?”
The man just sat,
his grey eyes opaque. Jim bristled. He didn’t need the man’s permission. What
were they going to do, lock him up in a practically abandoned spaceport? He
would be over the wall and in the city of
“Yes,” Alaric enunciated sharply. “Go find your Adam. Perhaps you will find him before your spaceport is abandoned in a tenday.”
“You have a date?” Jim was surprised - under the current chaos of the collapsing Federation he was suspicious of any schedule.
“I have some of the donas of the Aldaran. One of your Big Ships will arrive on the morning of the ninth day of your arrival and all Terranan who wish to, will leave on the morning of the tenth day since your arrival.”
“Fine,” Jim said shortly, ignoring that which he did not understand. “So I’m on a tight schedule. Give me your guide and I’ll get on with it. How much to hire one?”
Alaric rubbed his chin is such a blatantly false manner that Jim was immediately suspicious. “Maybe there’s another way?”
“What?” This was getting boring. The officer was playing stupid games. Simon Banks had obviously been in touch with the Thendaran head of security otherwise they wouldn’t be pussyfooting about and Alaric would be interrogating him.
“I have seen your ‘deputies’ in your
western vids in the
“And what does that entail?”
“You make an oath to the Hastur to uphold the law and obey the Comyn.”
“I can’t do that,” Jim said simply. “I don’t know what the Hastur is and I don’t know the Comyn yet.”
Alaric laughed showing a crooked set of teeth. “Ah, if you had said yes, I would have been suspicious. I will give you, Ranger James Ellison, a provisional status and assign you a guide. When you find your criminal, and your way, bring him to me and we will talk again.”
“What’s the catch?”
Alaric continued laughing. “There is ‘no catch’. This is in my best interests. Discover my planet and let my planet discover you.” Still laughing, Alaric patted a tiny bell on his table. It rang sharp and piercingly. Jim winced.
The door opened. “Yes, vai dom?”
“Send in Rafe, I have a job for him.”
The boarding house was clean and well furnished in wood which would have bought an entire city block on Terra. Rafe, a quiet young man, had led him to the three storey house and introduced him to the landlady, a short, swarthy woman with a shock of black hair and a ready laugh and not a single word of Terran Standard. Rafe had jabbered quickly at the woman. Jim only following one word in ten had realised that this was going to his home for the next nine days.
Rafe had bowed, made a faltering apology and then left. Jim was left standing with the landlady as his so-called guide escaped.
“Where did he go?” Jim said in Terran Standard and received a blank look from his new landlady. Jim thought hard of his language tapes and tried again.
She smiled. “My sister, his mother, needs him. His little sister, my niece, has arrived.”
“Ah, family run business?” Jim said sarcastically, the sarcasm was lost on the older woman. It had been significantly easier to talk to the Head of the City Guard, in a melange of Terran Standard and Casta, than Rafe’s aunt.
“My room?” He could dump his bags and get into the city. Without Rafe helping him it would be a little difficult, but he would find his way.
He only devoted on small part of his attention on the woman as she showed him a well appointed room dominated by a bed big enough for a family of four. Jim dumped his single carry-on on the floor and made an about face. There were valuable items in the bag, but nothing of real significance. The woman was welcome to search his clean underwear, reader and information cubes -- he doubted that she would get anything out of the experience.
“What’s the rate?” His question was met by blank incomprehension. “Money for the room?” Jim tried.
“City guard pay one tenday.” She smiled. “After that you pay me.”
“Whatever.” He would need his credits to book passage on the ship that Alaric was convinced would arrive.
“If Rafe comes back, tell him I’ve gone in to the city.”
“Like that.” She gestured at his clothes.
“They are perfectly functional.”
shrugged dramatically and said something that Jim did not catch. Ignoring the
woman, he pulled out his data pad and called up the Terran
local guide to the city of
He had credits, but given the current state of the Federation, he wanted to keep all his money plus he doubted that the inhabitants would put much store on credits. One piece of valuable information that Simon Banks had deemed to tell him was that the people of Darkover were metal poor and valued copper over gold. He had had crafted a small horde of tiny ingots of copper with a selection of other metals including silver and platinum. He just needed to find the criminal sector -- funnily enough it wasn’t painted in bright colours on his map.
Jim stopped and looked at the woman. She pointed to his data pad and shook her head.
“Feck.” Remembering some fairly stringent in the local laws about the importation of restricted technology he looked at a valuable piece of equipment. “Citizen Alaric, the vai dom, didn’t take it off me. It’s allowed.” He still placed the equipment in its assigned pocket in his vest.
The wind bit his skin and it seemed as if his uniform offered no protection from the elements. The Bloody Sun was setting and the temperature seemed to be dropping exponentially. His last post had been the desert world of Kaakis.
This was going to be a long search.
Jim cradled a ceramic mug between his chilled hands trying to will some feeling back into his fingertips. The hot chocolate-like drink had a serious caffeine kick and it was welcome. Hard ice shimmered on the cobbles, threatening to catch the unwary. Hoarfrost crystallised on his breath. The market place which he was observing was bustling with activity despite the late hour and the iciness. Jim got the impression that there was some kind of local festival going on, relating to the conjunction of four moons in the sky. Banks’ language tapes were proving to be a pile of excrement.
A young woman, practically bare chested despite the temperature, oozed up to him and he didn’t need any phrase book to understand the message in her eyes. Jim shook his head. His old partner Buck would have been after her like a tick on a warm body. Sighing, she moved on. Jim grimaced, he didn’t have time to set up contacts if he was going to get that last ship. He shook his head. Like it really mattered, where was he going to go?
Whatever. Get Trilys.
Banks had painted a picture of a man who was beyond dangerous -- a man without ethics and without morals. A man who got off on pain. But a man who had no reason to be on Darkover. Jim moved back into the shadows of the booth. Still sipping the drink, he surreptitiously pulled out his data pad and called up his orders again, looking for any other clues. The instructions were clear: find and detain Adam Trilys. After that the orders were vague: return to Central if possible, otherwise deal with Trilys and assess options at that point. He pulled up Trilys’ mortality specs. The bastard had a strange penchant for accepting contracts on young people and the younger the better. Kid killer. That was reason enough to take him down.
The market square sat on the border of the trade city that was frequented by Terrans and the slum city which housed many of the people who serviced the spaceport. Slum was something of a misnomer. Jim had seen much more dilapidated shanty towns, which typically grew up around Federation installations, on other planets. But compared to the other districts he had seen in the city it contained a dissolute set of buildings with peeling paint alongside narrow alleys. Jim pushed away from the wall and slipped between the people wending and weaving their way towards putting away a serious amount of the locally brewed alcohol.
It seemed even colder in the narrow alleys. Jim kept alert as he passed raggedly dressed people making their way to the market square. He spotted a few likely pickpockets in the steady stream of people walking in the opposite direction. The skin on the back of his neck crawled and Jim knew that he was being watched. He would have been surprised if he hadn’t been under surveillance. Jim was looking for someone in particular -- someone would be observing and assessing the crowd. Someone who would likely have a minion at his side. A controller or boss type character.
Stopping, he turned on his heel hoping to catch his watcher, but it was like spotting a grain of rice in a bowl of chung yong fat. Soon some vagrant would offer his services. Jim continued prowling. The watcher was good, almost ephemeral. Jim mentally noted that two youngish, scraggly boys were dogging him, waiting for him to beckon them over.
The screech took him by surprise, despite the fact that he had taken his sense-depressing hypnodryol before starting his search. The yell pieced his bones. Jim reached for his blaster, forgetting for a moment that it had been confiscated. He came up with his foot long k-bar knife. He fixed in on the yell. His irises dilated, turning night into day, as sight ranged forth guided by hearing. The warren of alleys and narrow streets seemed to engulf him. The buildings threatened to reach down and gobble him up. Noises ricocheted around. The sensory confusion was familiar and unwelcome. Jim slammed his fist against the corner of a low brick wall, breaking skin. Pain honed his senses.
A small figure was back up against a wall, his hands outstretched. Jim smelled blood. Three behemoths ringed him. One laughed.
“Give me some, you little catamite.” The hand that reached out to entangle the kid’s clothes was dirty and grimy. There was an acrid, loathsome scent of arousal on the air. Jim’s senses were suddenly honed as thought he had never taken a single dose of hypnodryol in his life.
“You’re mistaken.” The voice was deeper, not high like a child.
Jim hit the first rapist with the pommel of his knife, cracking his temple and sending him into unconsciousness. The second man’s eyes widened with surprise. Jim didn’t give him time to take a breath, smacking him into next week. The third man, the man holding the boy, had the most warning. Jim saw him yank the boy against his chest, holding his head as if he was going to break his neck. Jim punched him straight in his nose, shattering the man’s nasal septum and driving it up into his brain. Hideously wounded, the attacker’s eyes rolled back in his head as his higher brain functions ceased. He collapsed releasing the boy. Jim yanked the kid out of harm’s reach, setting him behind him as the rapist died on the gritty street.
“Zandru’s Forge,” the kid swore and Jim heard and smelled vomit splattering.
“What’s going on here?” Jim spun to face a short, swarthy man picking his way up the alley. The man saw the bodies, blanched and turned and ran.
A small crowd had collected at the end of the alley, watching silently.
“Get the City Guard,” Jim ordered, but they all simply scattered.
The kid retched again and Jim smelled blood anew.
“Come on, Kid -- let’s get out of here.” He caught the figure by the arm and pulled him along. “I need to find the guard.”
“You got a whistle?” the kid asked in that surprisingly deep voice.
“Yeah.” He had stuff in his copious vest pockets that he had forgotten ever existed.
“Three blows and pause and then three blows. The guard will come.”
Jim got them out of the noisome alley. He propped the kid against a wall and found his plastic whistle. Dialling down his hearing, he blew three sharp notes and then three more.
“You hurt bad, Kid?” He kept a hold of the victim, but continued to scan the street warily.
“No. It’s just bleeding a bit.”
The kid didn’t seem too distressed. Heavy boots clattered somewhere ahead of them. Jim blew three more notes and waited for the City Guard. Three blue clad guards, short swords drawn, jogged forwards.
“What’s happening here?” the oldest demanded.
“Muggers,” Jim said in pure Terran Standard. “Maybe more.” His fingers released their death grip on the kid’s bicep, but they didn’t let go. He felt warm sticky blood trickling over his fingers. Jim focused on the kid, taking in the big green-blue eyes peeking out from under a large wool cap. Neo-sentinel senses raked over the scrawny body. The fabric over his left breast over to his shoulder was rent, and through the gape Jim could see parted flesh and welling blood. His sleeve was saturated.
“Sit,” Jim directed, and pulled the kid down to sit on the grimy cobbles. He plucked off the wool hat, freeing a cascade of coppery red curls and pressed it against to wound. “What kind of medical facilities do you have on this planet?”
“Vai dom, what happened here?”
Jim turned to answer and felt the sharp edge of a blade against the delicate skin of his throat. The stocky, barrel chested guard was speaking to the kid.
“MacClean thinking that I was someone else dragged me into the alley.” The kid jerked a thumb shakily over his uninjured shoulder.
“Who hurt you, via dom?” The k-bar knife was plucked from Jim’s fingers.
“MacClean was intent on taking everything including my clothes.” The kid shuddered, his skin waxen in the dark red light of late evening.
With a jerk of his head, the guard directed his two compatriots up the alley. “Who are you?” he asked Ellison.
“Captain James Ellison, your superior Alaric Lanart-Alar knows who I am: Federation Ranger in pursuit of a criminal.”
“I will confirm that, of course.” The officer spoke to the curly headed kid, “Vai dom, I will call a carriage to convey you to the castle.”
“Isn’t there anywhere closer?” Jim asked. He didn’t like the grey sheen to the kid’s skin and the beads of perspiration on his top lip. The kid was going into shock.
“The leroni will help him there.”
“It will take too long.” Jim weighed his options. Hauling the kid over his shoulder would put undue pressure on the wound.
“The City Guards have a doctor,” the kid whispered.
The kid was a light weight. Jim scooped him up, arms under his knees and shoulders. “There has to be a closer medic.”
“My name’s not ‘kid’ it’s Blair.”
Jim stood behind the kid as a harridan carefully peeled back Blair’s leather jerkin and split the shirt beneath rather than manipulate the shoulder. The knife cut spanned from a thumb width below the join of his collar bones, across the top of his left breast and bit deeply into the ball of his shoulder joint. Jim could see fine golden hair, epidermis, a mere millimetre of fat then muscle and severed blood vessels.
“Vai dom, it will be easier to heal if the flesh is joined.”
The kid nodded and bit his full bottom lip as the woman rifled in a knapsack for a needle and thread.
“Use this.” Jim offered his sterile medical kit.
“I have some,” the woman snapped, and pulled out a waxed envelope and a curved needle.
“This is sterile.”
“This is clean.”
“It’s not sterile, though. Clean doesn’t cut it.”
“This is as clean as clean can be.” She held the needle before his eyes and it began to glow a dull red. Jim could feel the heat emanating and then like a switch being thrown it cooled.
“How?” There were no wires, no heating unit -- how had that happened?
“Laran,” the kid supplied.
“Laran?” Jim asked, but the woman was wiping the wound with a sopping rag. Blair hissed, going rigid.
“Relax, chiyu, you know how.”
Laran? He slipped back, turning away slightly he pulled out his data pad accessed the dictionary. Laran, it supplied was psychic phenomenon: telepathy, telekinesis, psychokinesis, pyrokinesis and their ilk. Jim stared at the woman. His senses were more apt to go pear shaped since Buck had died but he had taken his hypnodryol today so his senses were under control. He hadn’t hallucinated -- that needle had radiated heat. A hiss broke his meandering. The kid sagged on the chair as the needle bit. Jim watched the deft operation. He could appreciate excellent work since he wasn’t as skilled. He lost himself in the dip and pull, learning a new way to tie off the ends of a stitch without pinching the skin. His focus was disturbed when she covered the wound with a bandage.
“There you are, chiyu, you can heal now.” She gently patted his shoulder.
“Thank you, little mother.”
Alaric stepped out of the shadows of the infirmary. “Can you talk now, Blair? What were you doing in the quarter?”
“Kinsman.” He started to shrug and stopped. “I was fulfilling my duties. I was cold, I wore a hat -- I forgot to take it off. It happened too fast.”
“You should have spent time in the cadets; then you would have been able to defend yourself.”
“I… maybe. I didn’t want to kill them.” He hung his head. Alaric carefully rested a hand on the top of Blair’s copper curls.
“Next time, do not wear your hat and take a guard!”
Blair’s head shot up. “That defeats the objective. How can I get people to trust me if I have a guard with me? If I wear no hat the donas of the Comyn will protect me.”
“You were very lucky tonight.”
“I know--” Blair craned his head over his shoulder, “--without the help of this Terranan, I might be dead or worse.”
Jim nodded once. “Yup.”
“I am in your debt…”
“Ellison, Jim Ellison.”
“Ellison, Jim Ellison, I am in your….”
“No, just Jim Ellison,” Jim said and then saw the impish grin. The kid was teasing him. He must have seen the old vid dramas. “And you are?”
“Pleased to meet you.”
“And I am very pleased to meet you. You did not have to help me.”
Jim Ellison did not let little kids be raped and murdered. He shrugged.
“I am a man, I am over fifteen. I have trained at Arilinn since I was eleven. I am an accomplished Laranzu,” Blair said indignantly. “Terranan,” it was almost an insult.
Jim resisted the temptation to ruffle his corkscrew curls. He was almost thirty; he was twice the age of this brat.
The kid’s eyes widened. “Well, Grandfather Ellison, I am in your debt. If you have any problems, you may call on the House of Ridenow or myself while I fulfil my term as assistant to the city’s leroni within Thendara.”
Cheeky little snip. But it occurred to him that the brat spoke almost perfect standard and he was living in the city.
“Hey, you want a job as a guide?” Jim laughed inwardly at his wording. “I can pay.”
Alaric bristled, literally bristled. Jim saw his follicles quiver. His body temperature rose incrementally with anger.
The kid shot a dark look at his fellow red head. Belatedly, Jim realised that they were probably related. Alaric coughed.
“A ‘job’?” Blair said.
“Yeah, I’m new. You seem familiar with the darker side of the city. I need someone to show me around.”
“I have my duties, but not all the day. I can help you if that will assuage my debt.”
“Assuage away, Kid.”
“My name is Blair.”
“I just want someone to show me around. Tomorrow,” Jim clarified, not forgetting that the kid had a nasty slash across his chest. “During the day, not at night. Just for a couple of hours.” He just wanted to get a feel for the city. If the kid was working in the dark quarter, he could help him find a sneak to field him information.
“I assigned Rafe to you,” Alaric interrupted.
“Yeah, his sister arrived.”
“The babe wasn’t due until the equinox.”
“Where are you staying?” Blair interrupted the side track.
“Rafe’s Aunt’s boarding house.”
“I know it,” Blair said shortly. “I will find you after you have had your Terranan breakfast. Mestra Mackenzie is a good cook.”
Jim was enjoying a sense enticing breakfast. After the Big Ship’s nutrient broth and ranger MREs a true cooked breakfast was a thing of beauty.
If he was capable he would have cried.
The butter melted into the warm homemade bread and it was divine.
“I’ve never known of anyone who could worship at the altar of bread.” Blair slipped on the seat beside him and snagged a roll.
“The poorest Darkovan is a wealthy as a prince in the eyes of an average Terran.”
“Really?” Blair smeared a thick glob of creamy butter on his bread. “But you seem so proud of the Terranan ways.”
Jim chewed on a piece of crispy bacon before answering. Lovely salty happiness.
“Terra is only one planet in the Federation,” he corrected. “There is a Federation of thousands of planets. The tendency to standardise is driven by political correctness, to not to offend, to find a common denominator in food and clothing and other things.”
“I don’t understand.”
“So we get bland food and form concealing clothing. There’s an efficiency aspect as well. New personnel on a planet don’t spend weeks getting used to strange food. If you eat native food you can get gut rot for a fortnight. Eventually anything other than Federation standard culture becomes anathema.”
“And that is your pride?”
“Pride of a sort.”
“Yet you prefer our bacon.”
Jim laughed a speared another piece. “People want luxury. Butter is a luxury. I bet you’ve never tried margarine.”
“What’s margarine?” Blair asked obediently
“So…,” Blair began, “if our food is bad for you – why are you’re indulging?”
Jim waited a beat and said with false gravitas, ”I am a ranger.”
“So how’s the knife cut?”
“Almost better.” Blair rotated his shoulder.
Jim smiled hollowly at the bravado of youth. “That healer yesterday sterilized the needle with psychokinesis.” He had pulled up his Darkovan history files after returning from another fruitless meander through the trade city after leaving the city guard offices for a second time. Darkovans were human within the 99th percentile but according to Federation research incidences of psychic phenomenon had been reported in a few select instances.
Blair paused mid-chew considering his words carefully. “Psychokinesis, yes? That is one of the words that you use to describe laran?”
“Laran being psychic ability?”
Blair nodded. “Mestra Lara is an accomplished physician. The tiny lives which cause illness died. It is a neat trick. I think that she does it to show off.”
Jim fingered his data pad. The data on telepathy, kinesis and precognitive ability had been interesting, but a bit too speculative for his taste. The Federation had for the most part discounted the abilities of the psychics of Darkover citing them as minor.
“So you have some psychics on Darkover?”
Blair placed his bread roll on the table cloth. He stared directly at the ranger. “No, not in the way that you think.”
Jim rocked back on his seat. “And how am I thinking?”
“You think that it’s a game. It’s not a game. It’s real and it can be quantified by your Federation science.”
Jim pursed his lips rather than chortle in the kid’s face.
“But if you Terranan wish to discount our matrix technology, I have no problem with that.” Blair leaned forward eagerly. “You want to see Thendara?”
Ah, to be that young again. “Yes, if you’re up to it.”
Blair followed his line of sight to his shoulder.
“Oh, it’s fine.” He raised his arm above his head.
“What sort of painkillers are you using?”
“Don’t use too much,” Jim chastised, guessing that he had taken a lot if that wound was numbed.
“Alaric told me that you’re looking for a criminal,” Blair said ingenuously ignoring the ranger’s instructions.
Jim rolled his eyes heavenward. “What is it? Don’t you people understand the need for security and protocols?”
“Oh, we understand. But it is better that I know what you’re up to.”
“Don’t you have a proper police force?” Jim demanded.
“Yes,” Blair said, suddenly unaccountably serious. “They are busy. The Terranan in Thendara think that they cannot be held accountable for their actions as your Federation falls apart. There are fights and riots nightly. There have been murders. People have gone missing. Alaric is busy beyond belief. Your people are cruel and without honour.”
Jim carefully set aside his knife and fork and gave the kid his full attention. He said clearly, “If they are breaking the law, they should be punished.”
Blair sat preternaturally still, even his vibrant curls were at rest. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
Jim snagged a piece of bread -- “Yes.”-- and proceeded to dismember it.
“You are more Darkovan than Terranan.”
“Darkovans are not the sole keepers of honour,” Jim said levelly.
Blair raised his hands accepting the point. “I apologise. It just that Thendara has been unsettled of late and the Federation is at the heart of it.”
Jim pitied the kid. Unsettled was a quaint way for putting it. The infrastructure of the civilised universe was falling apart.
“We’re civilised,” Blair stated.
“Are you reading my mind, Kid?” Jim snapped.
“I don’t need to read your mind, you’re transmitting. Are you a telepath?” he asked baldly.
Jim concentrated on the kid’s heartbeat, the rate was constant. There was no telltale increase in rate with the anticipation of a lie or well told joke.
Blair rolled his eyes. He leaned over the table and flicked his finger tips against the data pad lying on the table by Jim’s elbow. “This tells you that there are people with laran. I mean psychic gifts. If I wished I could read your mind. But I don’t need to. You broadcast. Your thoughts are unexpectedly clear.”
“There’s nothing in the info service that says that your people have this degree of ability. It’s myth and legend. Psychic phenomenon is simple tricks and slight of hand. People say Guides are empathic, but there’s nothing that’s been quantifiable or demonstratable like this… Buck wasn’t an empath.”
“Buck?” Blair asked.
“Telekinesis,” Jim stated, “has only been demonstrated as strong enough to move a grain of rice.”
“Really?” Blair looked perplexed. “There was a research programme several years ago called Project Telepath which was formed of Terranan and Darkovans. I thought that laran had been studied thoroughly.”
“Yes. It only ran for several months. One of my teachers, David, was involved.”
“That’s where you learnt Terran Standard.”
Blair looked perplexed for a heartbeat and then laughed brightly all teeth and gums. “I’m not speaking Terran. I’m speaking Casta.”
“No, you’re not.”
::I am. You’re reading my intent::
Jim felt his stomach drop as if experiencing zero-g for the first time.
“Do that again.”
::Speak like this?::
“Mother’s furry tits!” Jim swore. A real god damned psychic like the Systran of Telos V. It was a damn good thing that Project Telepath had fallen apart before the Federation had got their hands on a telepath with this degree of control.
“Why?“ Blair asked.
“Stop reading my mind.”
“Sorry, but I’m not really.” Blair’s finger jerked pointing at him to emphasise his words. “You’re projecting. You do know that a wild telepath is a danger to all,” he said seriously.
“I’m not a telepath,” Jim refuted.
::Can you hear this?::
“Yes!” Jim jerked back away from the red headed demon.
“I’m not a demon,” Blair said indignantly.
“It’s a figure of speech, Chief.”
“Chief,” Blair tasted the unfamiliar word. “You heard me, although I have the Alton Gift and I can make almost anyone hear me. I think you should be tested by a leroni.”
“Yes, I heard you. I’ve heard telepaths before. There are some borderline sentients on Telos V with empathy. They’re pretty alien and communication is…” Jim chose his words diplomatically, “rudimentary.”
“It has been postulated that empathy developed to aid communication between alien species,” Blair offered.
“It don’t work,“ Jim said with the voice of experience. Typical student: all theory and no practical experience. “And how do you explain telepathy?”
“Aid communication between human species, of course. It allows us to talk.”
Jim shook his head and resisted the temptation to bat his ear with the palm of his hand. Now that he was concentrating on the kid’s spoken words there was a weird stereo effect of two different sets of voices in the same deep baritone voice.
“How many of you are there?” Jim asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never counted. The leroni of the Towers number between fifty and seventy people…. The Comyn many.”
“The aristocrats are telepaths.”
Blair scrunched his face up and leaned back to rock precariously on his chair. “No, the Comyn and the scions of the Comyn have laran. Laran has many forms, often telepathy, yes. But not all Comyn have laran and there are people with laran who are not Comyn.”
“But a lot of the people in charge are telepaths.” Mind readers in charge -- the thought was making his balls freeze.
Blair weighed his words as if copper before speaking. “Yes, that annoys you, why?”
“Stop reading my mind, Chief.”
Blair rolled his eyes. “Stop broadcasting,” he retorted. “The Comyn rule and the Comyn serve.”
“Aristocracy,” Jim grated. Hereditary rulers usually went hand in glove with abuse of power in his experience. At least a true bureaucracy had stops in it power.
Blair once more followed his thought. “There is a council…” Then he stopped placating, throwing his hands in the air. “The Comyn rule and the Comyn serve. This has been our way since before the formation of the Seven Domains. It works for Darkover and its people. Your Federation is corrupt and materialistic.”
“Hey, hey, Chief. I’m sorry if I’m insulting you. It’s just wrapping your head around a telepath ruling class over a non-telepathic population takes some takes some getting used to.” He took in the mop of burnished copper curls, curiously delicate brows, sea green eyes, pug nose and large mobile lips. The kid looked like a demented angel. “You’re related to Alaric, you’re a telepath, you’re a member of the Comyn.”
Blair nodded, a tad condescendingly at his slowness. “Yes and your thoughts are unflattering. Why do you think telepaths are just a temptation away from being corrupt, morally bereft monsters?”
“It’s just that…”
“Which is quite funny given that you’ve got donas practically leaking out of your ears.”
“Donas means gifts,” Jim checked.
Blair nodded, curls bouncing. “I told you, we should get you tested. You are a telepath, and--” Blair rocked his chair forward, bringing it to earth with a crack, “--something, I don’t know what. The leroni will know.”
Jim scowled. Banks was a twisted bastard of the first order.
“Who is Banks?”
“Kid! Hell’s Bells, how do I get you to stop doing that?”
“You have to stop broadcasting. A wild telepath is a danger to himself and others,” Blair said with the air of an oft repeated axiom. He stood. “Come. We need to take you to the City’s leroni. Celeste, my mentor, will know what to do. Come.” He turned, used to being obeyed.
Jim stayed in his seat. The pre-sentients of Telos V had creeped him out. The small arachnoidal beings had been drawn to him, nuzzling against him until his skin bled it crawled so much. The rudimentary communication they had shared had not been enough to illuminate why the Systran had been attracted to him. He had got a transfer post-haste and never looked back.
“Are you coming?” Blair asked from the doorway.
“To see your Celeste?” Jim didn’t move a fraction of an inch.
“Yes, it’s necessary.”
“I’m here to track and take down Adam Trilys. Not investigate psychic phenomenon.”
“But you’re a wild telepath.”
“No, I’m not. I hired you to take me around the city.”
“But you have to.”
“If you’re not going to help me, Chief, I’ll find someone else.” Jim patted his lips with a napkin and set it aside with great deliberation.
Blair huffed a sigh. “I am a laranzu of Arilinn, apprentice to the City Keeper for this term. Part of my duties is to find untrained telepaths and help them get the training that they need. You are an untrained telepath and you need my help.”
“No, I’m a ranger in pursuit of a criminal. I’m twenty eight years old. I think that I would know if I were a telepath.”
“Not necessarily--” Blair moved back into the room, “--if I’m the first human telepath that you’ve spent time with.”
“I thought telepathy meant mind to mind contact with anyone.”
“It can. It depends on the nature of the gift.” Blair spread his arms wide. “I possess the Alton Gift so I can make anyone hear me. You maybe can only talk with other telepaths? I don’t know the nature of your other gifts. It leaves you open somehow.” His broad brow furrowed in concentration. The kid was bottled enthusiasm in human form.
“Chief, I know what I am. I’m a sentinel.”
“What’s a sentinel?”
“I have hypersenses. I have better than average hearing, sight, smell, touch and taste.”
“So you’re psychically increasing your senses?” Blair’s pupils widened. “Fascinating. A new type of laran.”
“That’s as good an explanation as any other, I suppose.”
“But no telepathy?”
“Not until I met you, Chief.” Jim pressed his hands on the table and stood. “Are you going to show me around the city?”
“If I do, will you agree to meet Celeste?”
“After we… I take down Trilys, if I have enough time. I just want you to show me the city.”
Jim shook his head in amazement as Blair bounced out of the lodge. The kid had the energy of a much younger man. He knew that the path of Cottman IV around the red sun was longer that the standard Terran year. Blair said that he was over fifteen years old so that made him closer to seventeen by Terran calculations. Jim squinted, focussing on the tightly curling hair of Blair’s sideburns and there, closely shaved, he could see actual facial hair. Bright ginger, practically fluorescent, hair sat in well defined follicles. Jim didn’t blame the kid for shaving, a ginger beard against the true, dark red of his hair would look fairly ridiculous. Mentally, he re-evaluated Blair’s age to eighteen or twenty at a push. Still a kid although verging on adult.
“You can’t expect to go into the low quarter in those clothes. If you’re trying to find your criminal wouldn’t it be sensible to not broadcast that you’re coming?”
“You’re just showing me around the city, you‘re not helping me find my target.”
“You need my help.” Blair patted his chest.
“I know lots of people. As one of the leroni assigned
For what felt like the hundredth time since he had first met the kid, Jim rolled his eyes heavenward. But the kid had a point.
“Don’t call me kid.”
“Quit reading my mind.”
Blair snorted, swallowing a laugh. “Stop broadcasting then.”
“So what do you suggest, Chief?”
“Retainer? Bodyguard?” Blair offered and then shook his head. He breathed out deliberately allowing his warm breath to crystallise on the morning air. “Bodyguard doesn’t really work if you don’t know how to use a sword.”
“I’m a ranger, Chief.”
“Yes, I know that,” Blair said with a shading of exasperation.
Jim shook his head. “Kid, I just want to get a handle on the city.”
Blair slipped on the icy cobbles, Jim reached out to steady him, but he merely laughed and found his feet with the ease of practise.
“I suppose we can’t get you Darkovan clothes, you don’t know how to use a sword.”
“Who says I can’t?”
“You can?” Blair said disbelief rife in his tone.
“Okay, I had some training. There isn’t much call for swords in the Federation. I’m better at kendo-dso.”
“Sword-come-staff work. Why can’t I wear your Darkovan clothes if I can’t use a sword?”
“A man carries a sword.”
Jim snorted. “So how come you don’t?”
Blair’s hackles rose then dropped as he read his teasing with ease. He lowered his feathery brows, and stated, “I don’t need a sword.”
Blair patted his chest. “Really,” he drawled.
“This more of your laran stuff?” Jim ventured.
“Stuff?” Blair echoed and Jim felt an electric prickle tighten the skin stretched across his forehead. “Yes, laran ‘stuff’.”
“What will you do, cast a hex on them?”
Blair shook his head vigorously, corkscrew curls bobbing his eyes. “My Keeper would not approve.”
“I’m glad that you’ve got a keeper, Kid.”
“You are very irreverent,” Blair noted. He tucked his hands in his cloak and scuffed his feet on the cobbles breaking up ice. “Do not ridicule the Keepers. It is a matter a great seriousness and respect. While the role of the leroni and Towers are to change, and our command has waned, to speak of the Keepers in that tone will not be countenanced.”
The electric tickle wandered across his mind again. Jim followed its track, firing from synapse to synapse, triggering some and switching off others. The sensations cascaded through his cerebellum and he saw pictures.
“Ranger Ellison?” A gentle finger tip traced the line of his jaw.
Jim blinked. Shit, a zone under hypnodryol. Frig! He was coming fully on line. Swallowing uneasily, he finally opened his eyes. Blair was in his face, eyes impossibly big and blue and green, pain creasing his broad brow in empathy.
“What happened?” Blair demanded.
“It’s called a zone, Chief.” Jim felt a hand cup his elbow and guide him out the hustle and bustle of the Thendaran city street. Blair spoke, but it wasn’t directed at him, so he didn’t understand. Footsteps ran away from him. The world whispered away. Moments later he felt a warm ceramic mug pushed in his hand.
“Tell me,” Blair ordered.
“My senses. I get lost in them. Sounds, tastes… I’m not used to can blindside me.”
“No.” Jim rubbed his face. ”It’s a result of a mass random synaptic firing – similar to an epileptic event.”
Blair looked blank. The Terran words obviously had no Darkovan homologue. Doggedly, Jim pictured a net work of neurons firing randomly. Blair blinked and cocked his head to the side.
“No, that’s not what happened. You--” He waved his hand over Jim’s torso, “--went away to the Overworld. It was different, though.”
“This is not the place to demonstrate the Overworld.” Blair cast a glance over his shoulder.
“I guess.” Jim assessed the people passing by. Most were concentrating on their daily tasks, yet he was catching the attention of more than one person.
“It is not.”
“If I dress up as a retainer,” Jim said changing the subject, “does that mean that I have to serve you, Chief?”
“Look on your brightside, Ranger Ellison, at least you’ll be warm.”
The kid was as bright as his hair. They had stopped in one clothes shop where he had shucked off his ranger leathers and pulled on rough, homespun linen and leathers. Then they had come to what Jim could tell was an upmarket haberdashery. Following the kid’s curious telepathic mishmash of Terran Standard and Casta, he found that he had recently arrived from the Ridenow Estates to watch over the kid during his term with the City Leroni. His bag had been mislaid on the journey and he needed a new suit of clothes. As a cover it was rather poor, but he had left his Ranger personae behind at the first clothes shop.
Blair leaned back against a counter and watched as a man took his measurements. “It’s a pity about your hair. It’s a bit too short. You look strange.” He routed in a bin and pulled out a cap and tossed it over. Jim snatched it out of the air. It was a dark blue leather cap lined with silky fur. Gently, he ran his fingers over it, following the grain.
“Vai dom,” the storekeeper rattled away at the young Comyn lord offering up a series of leather jerkins for his inspection. Casting a sideways look at the sentinel, Blair picked a dark blue jerkin lined at the collar with similar fur to the cap.
“He’ll wear one of this style. Make up four shirts, no five, two of silk and three of fine linen. His old bones--” Blair grinned, “--feel the cold.”
Jim caught one word in the storekeeper’s rapid fire response: embroidery. Why embroidery he didn’t know. It hadn’t been a word on Banks’ teach-tapes. He seemed to be randomly picking up translations from Blair. He shuddered; once again remembering the eerie Systran. As they had touched him he had been assailed by images so vibrant he thought that he could touch them. He had not enjoyed the experience. But he was a ranger; he would deal and do his duty.
“Yes, old man?”
Jim glared balefully. “I’m not wearing any fancy kit like Alaric. I’m a soldier not a ponce.”
“If I knew what a ponce was I could comment. As it is, I’ll just guess. We’ll find you something not too ostentatious.”
Jim reached to pull out some copper chips from his ranger vest hidden under the threadbare maroon cloak they had purchased from the first shop.
Blair held up a warding hand. “It’s not necessary; the House of Ridenow has frequented this establishment for a millennia.”
Jim subsided, not wanting to be more memorable than he had already been.
The little princeling has an arrogant streak, Jim noted
“What’s a princeling?”
“Quite reading my mind, Chief.”
“Stop broadcasting,” he retorted.
“It’s a young prince.”
Blair recoiled slightly. “I’m not a prince. My father is the younger brother of Lord Ridenow.” He leaned forwards and whispered, “You Terran are strange.”
“And telepaths aren’t?”
“You’re a telepath.”
“Ar…” Jim subsided. The kid got under his skin like his younger brothers Patrick and Stephen. “How old are you?”
“Older than you think.” The storekeeper laid a pair of blue trousers next to a pair of leather trousers for Blair’s perusal. The princeling nodded, regally accepting the selection. “You can get changed now.”
Jim picked up one of each garment. Shaking his head, he followed the wizened storekeeper to the changing suite at the back of the tailors. What had he set himself up for by taking a bossy little Comyn princeling as a guide to the streets of Thendara? He stumbled as he caught a flash of Alaric, arms crossed, looking down at him, expression anxious.
“Jim?” Blair asked as he stumbled.
“It’s okay, Chief.”
The clothes were warmer than his ranger leathers and of a better quality that the homespun garments from the first shop. He ran a quick body check as he shucked out of the wool jerkin. A circle of angry, red skin broken by small fluid filled vesicles had risen on his forearms where the coarse wool had touched his bare skin. Scowling, Jim downed an antihistamine. He had a month’s supply, what would happen when the drugs ran out?
He pulled down the sleeves of his under suit to protect his skin from the natural Darkovan fibres. The clothes were warm, but he missed his ranger leathers.
“Shall we go?” Blair called.
Jim huffed a semi-aggrieved sigh and quit the changing room. “So where are you showing me, Chief?”
“I thought that we would start in the market square and then work our way through the trade city.”
Jim followed Blair out of the door. Am I supposed to walk four steps behind you or something? he wondered.
This is going to take some getting used to.
Jim skidded to a halt on the slippery cobbles. That was intensely weird, he had felt the meaning of the word in his own body. He had shrugged involuntarily.
Blair neatly turned on his heel. “You don’t have to walk seven steps behind me. I was making a joke. We’ll buy something and you can carry it for me.”
Jim pointed at the people on the streets going about their daily hustle and bustle. “Can you hear everyone?”
“No,” Blair said easily, tucking his cape around him in a warding gesture. “You’re just yelling.”
“Tell the truth and shame the devil,” Jim said piercingly.
Blair’s top lip curled in a self-mocking smile. “It’s true that I could hear them if I tried, but for the most part I can ignore them. There are methods of shielding oneself. You are, however, doing the equivalent of yelling in my ear.”
“That must be… annoying.”
“I think that disconcerting is a better word.” Blair suddenly grinned. “It’s not only you. It never really stops unless I take precautions. Your broadcasting is intermittent. I think that it would be fairly easy for you to learn to control it.”
“Later. Let’s get this tour done.” Jim managed a few steps before stopping. Does the underworld have telepaths?
Blair continued walking and looked up at the blood red sky. ::There are matrix technicians of dubious morals. For the most part those that are in the employ of criminals are not well trained. To be well trained you work in the Towers and you cannot be trained without taking an oath. A Keeper will not train matrix technician who would not be true to their word::
::If we are to have this conversation, I would prefer to do it in this manner::
Blair turned a corner. Jim up moved to walk at his side. They were on a steep, slippery footpath, working down to the market square that Jim had cased the night before. Unlike at night, the centre of the square was now a mass of colours. Jim blinked and the scene resolved into a patchwork of canvas roofs of individual stalls. “Go on, Chief.”
::A matrix is used to hone and control laran. A matrix technician is one who has learnt to work with a matrix::
An artificial method of controlling your laran? The ramifications were enormous.
::Not control. A magnifier…:: A brush of cool air tickled his senses. ::A lens, so to speak::
Fecking turds, have you any idea how lucrative that would be to the criminal element?
Blair stepped off the pavement and onto the street, darting between two laden carts and into the centre of square and the forest of tented stalls.
::Those without any talent can only use the lesser matrix and only for the smallest things, like locking a safe:: Blair snagged two paper bags from a vendor heating nuts over a bed of glowing coals. ::Even if the untrained had a matrix worthy of a Keeper their skill would not allow them to use it::
Where do you get these matrixes from?
Blair proffered a bag. Jim felt rather than saw the heat emanating. Wincing, he dialled down his sense of touch.
::They come from Darkover::
Jim untwisted the bag, inside were small, thumbnail sized nuts with a green charred skin. They smelled divine.
Do you have a matrix?
Blair’s hand rose to his throat. ::Yes::
“Can I see?”
“Jim,” Blair said, falsely coy.
Jim snorted. The kid was a card.
“I will to show it to you later, Jim.” Blair’s gaze encompassed the entire market. “Not here.”
“So you worked in a ‘Tower’ and now you’re working here.”
Blair was munching on his nuts, so he telepathed, ::I trained in Arillinn since threshold sickness::
“So what are you doing in the city if it so loud and noisy for you?”
::It’s complex. The Comyn and the leroni decided to make themselves more visible to the--:: and Jim felt Blair hunt through his mind for the most appropriate word ::general public::
“Will you stop doing that, Chief?”
“Rummaging around my mind,” Jim said levelly, while inwardly vacillating somewhere between amusement and annoyance.
Blair blushed as red as his hair. “I apologise. I… I didn’t mean… I… your surface thoughts are as clear as a bell. Your thought processes are anticipatory. You look and think for opportunity and action. You read and watch the area around you. You broadcast thought and deed. Whether you like it or not, you are a telepath and I treated you as a member of my caste and family. I apologise.”
“Hey, Chief, it’s okay. Just… I dunno. It’s… creepy.”
Blair shrugged. “I have the discipline. We will talk.”
Somehow Jim doubted it. As an intensively private man, he knew that he should be more angry. The Systran had made him angry. The kid aggravated him, but didn’t anger him. “Can you manipulate emotions?”
Blair shot him a leery glance. “Yes, but I would contravene my oath, if I did so.”
A picture of a tall, lithe woman draped in scarlet, haughty and arrogant scrolled across Jim’s mind. “I guess you’d get in trouble.”
“Yes. Oh yes. Indeed.” Just the thought of it turned the Comyn pale.
Jim rubbed his shaved jaw, pondering. Blair’s temperature and blood pressure had dropped a degree at the mere though of punishment.
“Just try and keep back a little bit, Chief. Come on let’s walk. Show me your city.”
The market was a riot to his senses but he held them in the palm of his hand. Colours, bright and shadowed, harsh and soft. His world was normally a monotone grey, but something about the bloody sun over head illuminated the world in a plethora of colours. Darker than a yellow sun, he did not need to control his sight on such a tight rein. Cottman IV was a world on the edge of human habitation. It would never have been chosen as a colony world if anyone had had a choice. Yet, he liked it.
“The market runs every tenday throughout the year. But this is busier than normal as people have come for the festival.” Blair’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Many people walk the market.”
::Looking for opportunity.::
Jim smiled as Blair weaved his way between the shoppers. Yet he noticed the occasional second glance as men, women and children noticed his bright hair. They would then make a slight obeisance. The princeling’s clothes were of a better cut, his hair was shiny and glossy and his skin was clear. He was obviously a cut above the throng, but why the genuflection? Blair smiled at all those he passed, and nodded at all who bobbed. Pragmatically, Jim knew that having a guide who was an aristocrat was probably a hindrance. And how strange that an aristocrat prowled the low quarter late at night?
“What do you do in the
“I have many duties. But my main one is to find and succour those in threshold and bring them to the Tower.”
“I teach.” And Blair smiled brightly and dazzlingly.
“So you go out and find telepaths?”
“What exactly is threshold?”
“Puberty brings laran. It is a time of great upheaval.” Blair looked sombre. ::Many die::
“What were you doing last night?”
“There is a man with a daughter,” Blair said guilelessly. “I suspect that she is a telepath. I wished to speak to them both, but he hates and fears the Comyn.”
“Any idea why?”
Blair shrugged. “I can think of a thousand and one reasons. I thought if I didn’t go as a member of the Comyn he would listen.”
“Can you save her?”
“Save?” he asked, perplexed. “Threshold is not always fatal, but if we can help. And…”
“It’s hard being a telepath in a world of the mind-dead. As you well know.”
“I’m not a telepath, Chief.”
“So you say.” Blair glanced deliberately to a knife kiosk. ::The man on the desk is Raymond – he is a potential contact::
Never slow on the uptake, Jim said, “I lost my knife during the attack, milord.”
Blair snorted inwardly and Jim felt it reverberate through his mind. ::You’re quick::
Don’t sound so surprised, Chief.
A wealth of blades lay on the front table. To Jim’s trained eye they looked well forged and functional. The blade of one lying in the far right corner glowed with a burnished blue lustre. The handle appeared formed of bone or antler, and was carved to sit in a man’s hand.
::Do you like it?::
I’d have to handle it.
Jim reached for the blade.
::Hold. Are you right handed or left handed?::
::Pick it up with your left hand::
Gauchely, Jim switched hands. The knife felt off balance.
“I think,” Blair said loudly, “it has been crafted for a man who uses his right hand.”
Obediently, Jim swapped it to his right hand where it sat perfectly. Moving the blue toned blade back and forth under the red light of Darkover it reflected a myriad of colours. All together it was beautiful thing.
Seeing genuine interest, Raymond turned to them. “It is a blade honed by a master craftsman,”
Looking at him Jim was reminded of skinny rabbit with thinning short hair.
“Perhaps,” Blair said, “but the blade will have to be reset in a different handle.”
“Your man seems to be able to handle the blade with both hands.”
“He is a man of many skills,” Blair said with a dark cast to his words. “James, this is the worth of the blade, see if he will accept it. If he doesn’t we will find another knife.” With that he dropped a pouch in Jim’s outstretched hand and sauntered off.
::I’m going to get more warm nuts::
Mutely, Jim proffered the money pouch.
“A man of few words, I like that,” Raymond said, but he didn’t take the pouch.
”Are you mute?”
“What do you do for the Comyn?”
::A bit of this and a bit of that::
“A bit of this and a bit of that,” Jim repeated dutifully.
“Oh, aye. You good with a knife?”
Jim held out the bag.
Sighing dramatically, Raymond the Rabbit took the pouch. Jim deftly flipped the blade in his hand and fired it at the target at the back of the booth. It hit dead centre.
“Better than most.”
“Ever killed a man?”
“Yes.” Jim held out his hand for his new knife.
Raymond yanked it out of the board and handed it over. Jim gazed at the man levelly and then took the blade into his possession.
“See you later,” Raymond said as Jim walked back to Blair’s side.
::Well?:: Blair asked.
What happened there?
::He thinks that you’re a mercenary-assassin. The cut of your clothes is new and you’re not acting like a retainer, so the inference is: bodyguard. Some bodyguards can be for hire::
“You’re good, Chief.”
Blair bowed mockingly and then stuffed a handful of nuts in his wide mouth. ::I guess we buy you a scabbard for your throwing knife.:: He pointed to a leatherworks booth.
“What’s with the bunch of left handed hilts? Are most people left handed here?”
Blair held up his left hand. “Aye.”
Jim noticed for the first time that his guide had six fingers. The narrow hand was well formed. The sixth finger looked perfectly well articulated. He knew that it was a possible mutation, but he hadn’t seen it before.
::As I understand it from our man-at-arms most assassins are trained to use both hands::
So I’ve announced myself as for hire?
::You wanted an avenue into the underworld::
Jim inhaled deeply enjoying the scent of well tanned leather.
“I think that…”
Jim started as his comm. hidden in his vest vibrated. Nerves jangled at the subliminal sound.
“What’s the problem?” Blair laid a gentle hand on his arm.
Jim lowered his head and spoke into a small ear. “I just got a message from my boss.”
“How?” Blair looked around.
Jim patted his breast pocket.
“You’re not supposed to bring proscribed equipment out of the Terran Zone.”
“Oops,” Jim said insincerely.
Blair scowled. “I suppose that you want to speak to your ‘boss’.”
“It’s probably a good idea.”
“You can’t do it here, you’ll have to go back to your rooms. Go – but you must hand over your equipment to Alaric at the first opportunity.” Bristling like a cat with its fur rubbed against the grain, Blair stalked off.
“Alaric.” Blair slipped into his kinsman’s office.
The commander looked up from the reports which he was perusing and set them aside with a happy sigh. Blair read his kinsman’s gratification at the interruption with ease. The man hated the need to keep an eye on the Terranan by tracking their paperwork. The people were insane, they lived by their bureaucracy. They deserved to rot in Zandru’s Seventh Hell.
“What’s the matter?” Blair asked.
“I will celebrate for a tenday when the Terranan leave.”
“Murder, mayhem and disappearances. Two matrix technicians were killed in the low quarter along with five others.”
“Gabriel Quaid and Mestra Pogue. Do you know them?”
Blair knew most to the denizens of the low quarter. Quaid was a less than skilled technician peddling lock crystals while Mestra Pogue had a roaring trade in, of all things, love potions. The woman was actually a font of information of the comings and goings in the quarter, and had been a useful contact.
“I know Mestra Pogue. She helped me on occasion when I needed to talk to parents of those approaching threshold. I didn’t know that she knew Quaid.”
“How well did you know Quaid?”
“Not very. I didn’t like the man. What happened?”
“Eric the Red knifed a Terranan and to cover his tracks set a fire in the Hovels. Quaid had rooms in the house. Pogue was visiting. A family of five died in the attic.”
“Zandru’s Hells. But I don’t think that it was the Terranan’s fault that the fire was set.”
“True. But I will be glad when they leave.”
“Perhaps,” Blair said, thinking of one Terranan.
“And how is your assignment going, kinsman?” Alaric asked perceptively.
Blair huffed disgustedly. “The man is both irritating and interesting and he’d old beyond his years.”
“He has laran?”
“You know that he does.” Blair dropped onto the rickety chair opposite his kinsman and peered over the piles of paper. “He calls himself a sentinel.”
“Sentinel?” Alaric scrabbled though a pile on his left and pulled out a sheaf of flimsy extruded plastic. Blair leaned over and tried to read the upside down script. He wasn’t adept at reading Terran Standard right side up.
“What does it say?”
“Here.” Alaric ran his finger along a line. “’Jim is a sentinel; he needs a guide’.”
“Is that why you wanted me to show him around Thendara?”
“Partly. Banks said that he is a distant man, but he interacts with younger people. That he likes to take them under his wing.” Alaric dropped the sheet on the desk. “I thought that a sentinel was a scout and watchman.”
“No.” Blair snatched up the paper. ”He says that his senses are heightened. I think that they’re enhanced psychically.”
It’s happening as I suspected. And I’m dispersing my people. James Ellison is a good man although hard work at times. He’s best with younger people. He likes to play the big brother. Give him a chance and he’ll serve you with honour and loyalty. Jim is a sentinel; he needs a guide. I hope that he finds one on Darkover.
“Simon Banks is head of the Ranger unit out of Shiba Unit Two. He was based on Darkover for a term. But the man has skin as dark as night and couldn’t even walk the streets without gathering a crowd. He hated the role of just administrating his unit and managed to get reassigned to a more active position.”
“He has set his people free?” Blair read the second sentence again trying to discern the unknown man’s meaning.
“Banks is a good man and a good friend. When he started I was new to the role of ‘security.’ I had served in the guard, but I knew nothing of the insane politics of the Terranan. Banks knew this, but took no advantage and took the opportunity to alert me of a few ‘things’. He told me that he believed that the Federation was a diseased lumbering elephant vulnerable to hyenas.”
“What’s an elephant?” Blair couldn’t help but ask. He shook his head and waved asking his kinsman to continue.
“Confusing analogies aside, he said that the government would fall.”
“So he sent Jim here, away from the Terranan to protect him?”
Alaric shrugged. “Who understands the Terranan? I know that Banks would lay down his life to protect his men.” He pulled out a sheaf of paper and drew a swirl. “We are here--” he jabbed the paper pointing at the lower end of the swirl, ”--well away from the hub of the Terranan government. Banks has sent James Ellison as far away from ‘them’ as possible. To protect? Why, I don’t know.”
“He sent a person with laran to a place where laran is understood and accepted.”
“Uhm,” Alaric grumbled.
Blair sat up straight. “What?”
“If Ellison can find Adam Trilys before the Big Ship leaves he will be honour bound to leave and take the man into custody.”
“Banks knew this?”
“Banks knows everything.”
Blair laughed loudly. “Is Adam Trilys even here?”
Alaric smiled a predator’s smile. “Now that I can see Simon Banks doing.”
“What I can’t see is James Ellison falling for it.”
Blair darted into the
“And what is today’s excuse?” A swirl of dark velvet heralded the appearance of his mentor. Her mental presence swept across his mind, reading and cataloguing his surface thoughts. Blair resisted the temptation to blow a mental blurt.
“I needed to talk to Lord Alaric, Celeste.”
“You have your duty to the people of Thendara,” the slender, aristocratic woman said soberly.
The Comyn Council had determined that the ruling overclass needed to interact with the people more closely. The Lady Marguerida Alton, wife of the Lord Mikhail of the House of Hastur, the leader of the Comyn Council, had instigated something that she called a ‘programme’ to ‘familiarise the common people with laran, to identify and assist those members of the public with laran previously unidentified’. Blair thought that the Lady Marguerida Alton had spent too much time living with the Terran before coming to live on Darkover. As he understood it, they were helping people. The untrained often lost their senses under the onslaught of laran. He also knew from his mentor that the Comyn benefited. They were aloof, respected and feared by the common people and this ‘programme’ helped people see them as caring leaders.
“You have a lot of growing up to do Blair Sandier of the House of Ridenow, but your heart is compassionate.” Celeste extended her fore- and index finger and lightly brushed his smooth cheek. The touch was so transient he barely knew its physical presence. “What has your kinsman involved you in now?”
Blair obediently followed the Keeper into her inner sanctum. The room was draped with silks insulating her and the matrix crystals that she worked with from the hustle and bustle of humanity outside the tiny office. It wasn’t ideal. He knew that Celeste would have been happier under the protective blanket of a Tower surrounded by her peers and kinsmen, furlongs away from the omnipresent thoughts and feelings of people. But she believed in Lady Marguerida Alton’s ‘programme’.
“So how were you hurt?” Celeste held her finger a hairsbreadth over his tunic and traced the line of the healing wound on his shoulder
“Oh, well, I was following the sentinel.”
Jim lay on his bed drumming his fingers against the hard plastic sides of his data pad. The time delayed message on his pad was very illuminating. And the contents of his message warranted more than a moment’s consideration. Revenue cuts had hit the rangers hard, downsizing their missions. Yet Banks had initiated a massive push just before Jim had been sent here. Banks’ unit and the units which Jim knew that Banks was a personal friend of their commanders had launched a mass offensive. Regardless of law and legislation they had attacked suspected strongholds, drug labs, slavery rings and child pornography clusters. All the dens of iniquity that rules and regulations had previously only allowed them to observe until they had sufficient evidence to warrant the expense of prosecution had been attacked. Banks and his cronies had scattered them to the corners of the known universe, breaking the spines of their networks.
Banks was in serious trouble.
Suddenly Jim laughed. Banks had basically retired from the service, after probably damaging most of the behind-the-scene funders of the Expansionists that were taking over the Federation. But more than that, he had directed considerable resources to targeting murderers of all ilk. Then he had scattered his personnel sending them like hunting dogs after them.
“Fuck, the man’s a genius.” Jim shook his head in fond amazement. He dropped the data pad on the embroidered quilt and slouched back on his bed. There was no unit to go back to. He had been sent out of the reach of the Expansionist government’s long arm. He hoped that Banks had got away safely, and had not stayed behind too long ensuring his people’s futures. “Where did you go, Simon? Did you make it home? I hope you did.”
Jim snatched the data pad back up. “What next?” Rapidly, he reviewed the data on Trilys along with the new files opened up by Banks’ time delayed message. The kid killer had been one of Bank’s sheep. The man had been deliberately herded in this direction by Henri, who had pursued the man with canny ability stopping him from heading to the darker underworlds of Kurltwurld or Chril. Henri had then been reassigned and sent to the world of Housten-Alki on the edge of the beta arm of the spiral nebula. Housten-Alki was Henri’s own homeworld.
“Banks, you’re a clever bastard,” Jim repeated. “Why me, and why Trilys – assuming he survived crash landing on the planet? Why did you herd Trilys to Darkover?” He rolled off the bed and stared out of the window at the medieval backwater. “Or was Trilys the only criminal of the ones you sent fleeing that came in this direction? You wanted me on Darkover?”
He breathed the clean air, only detecting
base odours of wood fires and bustling humanity. The spaceport loomed in the
distance, the high spires seeming to face off against the turrets of
But what next? His family were merchants, owning massive interstellar ships. The ships would be important to trade regardless of the type of government in charge. He was not enthusiastic about renewing acquaintances with his brothers and uncles. It was, however, one avenue of escape.
He would play Banks’ hand of cards, and see what the game brought him. His commander was a canny man, obviously he thought that there was something here for him.
Blair ran up the stairs to Jim’s room. Before he was halfway up the stairs, the door ahead opened. Jim stepped out onto the landing a foot long, viciously serrated knife in his hand. Blair froze.
“Is that for me?”
The knife disappeared as if sent through a matrix screen.
“Hey, Kid, what do you expect running up the stairs like the Hounds of Hell are on your heels.”
“I had a thought after talking with my Keeper. Would you have a portrait of your Adam?”
“He’s not my Adam, but yeah, sure.”
“Can I see it?”
“’Course.” Jim waved for Blair to precede him into his room.
The room was as neat as if Jim had only just arrived. Blair expected little less of the man he had only just met. He held himself in restraint as if a wild horse tightly reined. In truth he was not a comfortable man to be around. He needed to learn how to relax. Training in a Tower would help him.
Jim snatched up a device on the dresser beside his bed and passed it over. Gently, Blair took it and looked at the bright picture. Adam Trilys was a handsome man with a square jaw, straight nose and deep set eyes framed by blond hair. The golden hair would make him stand out amongst the darker Thendarans. Blair turned the box over in his hands.
“Can I get the picture out?”
“You mean a hard copy?”
“Hard Copy? I don’t know. But this won’t work.” Blair shook the box.
“What are you trying to do?”
“Do you have anything that belongs to him?” Blair asked ignoring the question.
“No, I’ve never met the man.”
“So what drives you to pursue him?” Blair asked flabbergasted.
Jim huffed out an exasperated sigh. “Duty.”
Blair stared fixedly at the picture in the box. Gingerly, he mentally probed the device. Metal rich lines carried dancing electrons. Tracing the pathways of energy led to a surging bank of cells hidden at the back of the box. Taking another route led to a crystal, similar but different to the matrix at his throat, which held stack upon stack of thoughts, messages, words and tales.
He ignored the insistent voice, taking another route to through the maze. Liquid pictures flowed through his mind, scorching. Tales of travesty and hatred. Had Jim ever met a decent man? Blair turned, which way was out? He stood on a copper road as wide as he was high. It stretched into the far distance disappearing over an impossible horizon. The sky above was a uniform slate grey but there was no sense of ceiling. Tentatively, he reached up. A pulse of light passed overhead. Blair threw himself to the ground just before another almost took off his head.
He was inside Jim’s box.
“Zandru’s Forge!” Was this was why the Terranans’ science was forbidden? Which way was out?
“Celeste!” He called searching for his mentor. Celeste often journeyed mentally within the matrix screens when working in the Tower. Was this device analogous with the constructed screens that the Tower dwellers used to communicate with each other? But Celeste had a ring of matrix technicians and fellow telepaths to aid and support her in her work.
A dark blue block rose up from the floor and loomed over him. Blair froze, waiting for a clue. The block surged forward and he barely threw himself out of the way. It broke the line and Blair struggled to find his balance as energy flowed around him.
This was dangerous.
Skating over the copper road, he made his way to the edge. The land beyond was dotted with blackened scorch marks. Crouching down, Blair touched the earth with a fingertip. It had a sodden, nasty feel and Blair felt his guts freeze and clench in pain.
Jim watched as Blair froze, blue eyes drifting into vague aimlessness rather than sparkling with intelligence and reason. Was this what he looked like when he zoned?
“Chief?” Tentatively, he laid a hand on the kid’s shoulder. At the touch, Blair’s eyes rolled back in the head and he folded. Jim moved with Blair, lowering him to the floor. The data pad fell away and skittered under the bed. Practiced, Jim rolled him into the recovery position, and brushing copper curls from Blair’s face he ensured that his airway was clear. The kid’s heartbeat rattled in his ears, the pattern was becoming arrhythmic.
A chill settled over Jim’s guts, freezing him to the core. “Blair?”
He held the kid’s head in his hands hunting for any sign. The world that the Comyn inhabited was beyond the mundane. He had looked intently at the pad then he had gone blank. Had Blair been trying something psychic?
Concentrating, he thought, ::Blair!::
The body surged beneath him. Blair’s eyes shot open and he drew in an almighty breath. “Thank the Gods,” he exclaimed and then began coughing.
Jim drew him to a sitting position, holding him tightly. Blair coughed and retched, once, twice and then sank loosely against him.
“Thank you,” Blair repeated.
“I… tried to memorise the picture, to gain an impression of the man. That thing took me.”
“The data pad?” Jim glanced at it under the bed.
“It was like being in the Overworld, but filled with metal and sharp angles.”
“What were you trying to do?”
Blair shifted and Jim released him. He rolled onto his knees, shook his head and then found his feet. Staggering a little he began to pace, hands knotted in his hair.
“Stupid. Stupid. That hurt.”
“Kid.” Jim was at his side in an instant.
Blair pushed him away. “Celeste told me that we may be able to find Trilys using the matrix, but I needed a portrait or an item that belonged to him first.”
“Well, don’t try it again.”
“It could have worked,” Blair snapped.
“Your heart wasn’t beating right,” Jim breathed out a harsh, angry sigh. “It’s not worth it.”
Blair’s hands dropped to rest over his chest. “It’s dangerous to leave your body without a watcher.”
“I noticed,” Jim said dryly.
“I was just trying to help.” Blair sulked.
“I’ll find him the old fashioned way.” Jim crossed his arms. “I’m going to meet with Raymond later this evening. You’ve done your duty, Kid. Leave it up to me – go back to your Tower.”
Blair’s mouth dropped open, aghast. “I won’t.”
“Hey, Chief, I don’t want you getting hurt.”
“You can’t stop me. I’ve only introduced you to Raymond. I haven’t even begun to help you.”
“Trilys will be in the vicinity of the spaceport trying to get off world. It’s his only way off the planet. I will simply lay in wait.”
“How do you know that?”
“I got a message from my boss.”
“And?” Blair asked piercingly.
“Trilys never meant to come here. There’s no illicit reason for him to stay on the planet. No technology. No assassin’s contract. He’ll just be trying to get off planet.”
“So you don’t need Raymond?” Blair’s shoulders slumped.
Jim smiled hollowly, the kid looked so unhappy that his great idea had fallen flat. “I will need him. Trilys will be looking for money, a con, a way off the planet. But I doubt the guy can speak the lingo, he’ll be seriously disadvantaged. It’s just a matter of time and then I’ll get him.”
“In less than eight days?”
“In less than eight days,” Jim confirmed.
“And then what? Go back to your non-existent Federation?”
“I will cross that bridge when I get to it.”
“What bridge?” Blair’s brow furrowed.
“It’s a metaphor. “
“You don’t have to leave. Simon sent you here, to Darkover, for a reason. You can stay.”
“Simon sent me here for a reason?” Jim said instantly.
A blush touched Blair’s high cheekbones. “Uhm, Alaric knows your boss. He told him that you were coming.”
The dragon of anger grumbled in Jim’s guts. He was no one’s puppet. Yet Simon Banks was manipulating him with ease, using his loyalty to the man against him.
“You’re a telepath, Jim. What better place for you to be than Darkover?”
“And Simon set Trilys on your planet to get me here. I know he had his reasons, Chief, but you don’t need people like Trilys on your planet. Anyone that he kills is on my head.”
“No it’s not!” Blair moved directly into his space, standing on tiptoes in a vain attempt to get closer. “It’s Banks’ fault.”
Jim stepped back, spinning to the window. Control, he beseeched, setting his hands palm down on the sun warmed sill. Deliberately he reined in his wildness, concentrating on the goal, ignoring the here and now. Simon’s machinations were irrelevant. Finding Trilys, murder of children and profiteer, and bringing him to justice was his purpose.
“I’m going to talk to Raymond.” He moved from the window. “Stay here, Chief.”
“Pah.” Blair raced after him, thundering after the man that darted lightly down the stairs. “You need me. You need me to translate the words.”
Jim spun on the bottom landing. “I am not going to be responsible for another person’s death.”
“Another person’s?” Blair echoed.
“You almost died up there. I heard your heart labouring.”
Blair sidled down a step. “Whose heart died as you listened?” he asked softly.
Bright eyes speared him. “Buck,” he grated.
Blair drifted closer, one hand outstretched. “Buck?” he whispered and the image of a man, tall, dark, with an ample moustache to rival that of any Darkovan, laughed in his mind.
“Buck helped you, didn’t he? Helped you with the maelstrom of your senses?”
“A sentinel needs a guide.” Jim laughed raucously, and Blair winced at the pain. “Buck would have probably been my guide if my senses had broken out fully. They didn’t. The Ellison Sentinels are known to be late bloomers. I’ve had sporadic sentinel senses my entire life. Buck helped me with the migraines and episodes when even my clothes hurt, but they’ve only recently become--” he gritted his teeth, and growled, “--permanently annoying.”
“What happened to your friend?”
“We we’re taking down a perp. My senses flared up,” Jim said, his sentences short and sharp. “I froze. Buck got between me and the bastard trying to take me out.”
Blair felt the weight of Buck in Jim’s arms, and knew of his memory as he drifted away. The man had been euphoric, beyond pain as he realised that he had saved his one true friend.
“You lost a good friend that day. I share your grief. And will honour his memory,” Blair intoned.
Jim blinked at him.
“It is a Darkovan thing.” Blair tried a smile and failed. “He must have been the best of friends.”
“This sentinel gift means that you need help. You cannot go out there alone. There is a wealth of scents, smells both pleasant and rank that you have never faced before. Sounds that have never assaulted your ears and could flay the unprepared.”
“My senses got one man killed. I’m not going to let them kill a kid.”
“You persist in the thought that I am a child. I am an adult.” Blair squashed the urge to pout. “Unlike your friend, I am not going to throw myself in front of you. I am a Comyn of Darkover, I can protect myself and you.”
“Never again, Chief. You’re not coming.”
“You can’t stop me,” Blair said simply.
Jim chortled and Blair bristled with indignation; the arrogance of the Terranan knew no bounds.
“Oh, I can.”
“How? Oh--” Something punched him in the centre of his chest, “--that’s strange.” Curiously unperturbed, Blair looked at the tiny arrow poking him through his jerkin. With every breath it rose and fell, moving with his skin. His body was going to sleep. Blair raised his heavy head and looked at the sentinel who was reaching for him. Deftly, the man plucked the dart free.
“Night, night, Chief.”
Jim caught the body as it lolled against him. The kid was out for the count. The dosage was for the average adult male, so the smaller Darkovan was hit hard and fast. Limp, holding him was like trying to handle a bag of water. Jim ducked down allowing the slight body to fall over his shoulder. Before the housekeeper could come to investigate the argument in the hall, he ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Blair didn’t utter a peep.
Jim dumped him on the feather mattress. Blair bounced once. Jim caught his shoulder and rolled him on to his side. Allergic reactions and nausea had not been reported with the sedative, but Blair was somewhat unusual and he wasn’t taking any chances. Jim tucked a pillow behind his back to prevent him from rolling over and then covered him with a blanket.
“See you later, Kid.”
Raymond jerked his head indicating behind the booth as Jim approached. Slipping into the dark environs, Jim smelled oil and whetstone and tasted iron fillings on the air. Raymond didn’t forge his knives in the booth, but he obviously sharpened and looked after the blades. It was likely that the man was a dab hand with his weapons of choice. Jim pulled out new acquisition and let it dance over his fingers.
“You’re good,” Raymond said.
“I imagine that you’re better.”
“I am.” Raymond took up his own blade and balanced it on a fingertip. “You’re looking after the Comyn brat.”
“He needs a keeper.”
Raymond laughed outright. “That’s a good one. I’ll have to remember that.”
Jim didn’t waste time with small talk. “I was attacked on the journey to Thendara. They took my knives and my favourite shirt. I want them back.”
“Who was it?”
“Tall man, my height. As fair as a Dry Towner.” Jim stopped abruptly, where had that comparison come from? ::Blair?::
There was no sense of the young man. Yet somehow they were communicating.
“Where were you?”
“That’s not important. Do you know him?”
“Fair?” Raymond scratched his chin. “He would be as obvious as a forest fire at . I can ask around.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“Consider it a favour.”
“And in exchange?”
Jim flicked the knife in the air. It lazily flipped over before it reached the apex of its arch and then fell to earth. As it fell, Jim laid his hand on the wooden table top and the knife pierced the wood between his outstretched finger and thumb.
Raymond lowered his head in a tight nod, acknowledging the skill.
“I’ll remember your skill.”
Jim took the knife and slipped it away into the folds of his cape, secreting it between his silken under suit and the scratchy woollen jerkin. One contact, he noted, was one contact closer to Trilys. The sentinel prowled out the booth.
There were fewer booths as the sun set, the proprietors packing up at the chill of evening approached. Jim grabbed some deep fried pastries dusted with sugar. Nibbling them he passed by the people. His goal was the spaceport. Trilys should have investigated the opportunity to leave the city.
The spaceport had the air of being gutted from the inside out. Jim stalked down empty corridors. A few comm. units had been pulled from the walls and the wiring stripped out. Jim suspected that a few Terrans had taken the opportunity to go over the wall, so to speak, and were using the metal rich wires for collateral. Terran spaceports were built pretty much on the same lines and Jim had no problem heading in the general direction of the communication tower. As he entered the tower, the solitary young female at the telemetry consol spun around, her jet black braid whipping around her throat.
“Captain Ellison, Ranger out of Shiba Unit Two. I am in pursuit of a criminal.”
Her dark eyes widened in fear, and unconsciously her fingers rose to her mouth. “Zhou, Ireene, ensign, communications, sir.” Remembering herself, she stiffened and saluted.
Jim returned the salute. “At ease.”
She dropped into parade rest. “How may I assist you, sir?”
“Where’s your commanding officer?”
“He took a ship out three weeks ago, sir.”
“He abandoned his post?”
“I’m sorry, sir? I don’t understand.”
“Why didn’t you leave?”
“I haven’t been relieved, sir.” Then she said candidly, “It was heading into the Opal Nebula, my folks live on Calt-it. It was just taking me further away, sir.”
“Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t, eh Kid?”
She sagged miserably. “Yes, sir.”
“There’s another boat coming through in eight days, maybe that one can take you home.”
“Really? How do you know, sir?”
“I just do.”
“Yes, sir.” She looked at him like the sun shone out of his ass.
Jim’s top lip curled in a slight smile; oh to be that young again. “Anyone been here looking for a way off planet?”
“Everyone, sir. Everyone wants to go home, apart from those that have gone over the wall. They’re at home, so to speak.”
“How many have gone over the wall?”
Her gaze dropped to the floor. “More than a few, sir. They’re good people. If I wasn’t concerned about my ma and pa, I’d probably stay. Hey, I might have to.”
Jim heaved a sigh. “I understand. You know most of the personnel here at the spaceport, don’t you?”
She hesitated a moment then said, “Yes, sir? Maybe not by name, but by sight.”
“And the planet’s protected so there’s not a lot of non-Federation personnel here?”
She nodded, waiting for the real question.
“Any tall blond guys who you haven’t seen before, asking about passage off Darkover?”
She nodded again vigorously. “Yes, sir. Mr. Dire.”
“Dire? Describe him.”
“Tall as you. Maybe taller. His hair’s longer than yours, though, especially at the back and it’s wavy. He’s got green eyes.”
“He was smarmy, bit of a creep. He was only being nice to me ‘cause he needed info. If anyone else had of been here he would have spoke to them.”
“Did he say where he was staying?”
“He’s in the compound, sir.”
Ensign Zhou nodded. “He wanted to be close in case a ship arrived. I offered him a comm. unit so I could contact him in the city but he said he didn’t speak the lingo and wanted to stay with--” she rolled her eyes heavenward, “--humans.”
“Ensign, stay here.”
“Yes, sir. Sir.” She saluted.
“Continue with your duties.” Jim waited until she returned to her post, and then accessed the spaceport’s database. Dire was on compound in an officer’s abandoned suite. Information was scant, no pictures or gene type had been uploaded. Jim had to admire the gall of the man. Federation criminal walking into a Federation run spaceport and taking over a Major’s quarters like he owned the place.
Noting the building and room number, Jim continued his hunt.
Blair idly roamed through the Overworld. Disassociated and disconnected from his body, he had memory of how he had come to the open plains of the Overworld. In the far distance where the roiling clouds of an imaginary sky met non-existent land he thought that there was a beckoning light. Indolently, he drifted to the impossible horizon.
“Oh.” Blair swung around, arms wind milling. “Who are you?”
“My name is not important, Kid.”
“You’re wearing feathers.” Blair blinked furiously trying to clear his vision. The blurred stranger was half naked, wearing far too few clothes for even a balmy Darkover evening. A red line masked his dark brown eyes. “Where are you from? Why do you have paint on your face?”
“Oh, I get to do this. I’ve been promoted in the demon hierarchy.”
The man twirled his ample moustache. “Jim, the twit, has -- out of the kindness of his heart -- drugged you. But the thing is, Kid, he didn’t know that you are at best only lightly tied to your body. He has put you and himself in serious danger. You need to wake up, young un.”
“But?” Blair pointed at the enticing will-o’-the-wisp.
“Don’t look that way. It’s actually pretty boring down there, no girls. Take my hand.” The man extended his arm and Blair took his hand marvelling at the contrast of his pale, fair skin and the rich, olive tones of the stranger’s skin. “Come with me.”
Docilely, Blair followed the man, drifting away from the blue hued Overworld to the vibrant reality of the mundane existence. He saw himself curled on his side lying on a patchwork quilt and blanket wrapped around his feet.
“Yup. Join your body.”
A hand touched the small of his back, and Blair was pushed and he spiralled downwards. Everything was suddenly concrete and real. Confused, he tried to sit up, his arm refused to take his weight and he flopped onto his face.
Blair drew his knees up trying to crawl. He planted his palms down on the quilt, miscalculated and went over the edge, slithering face first onto the cold wooden floor. He lay there, one eye open staring at a splinter on the polished floor, the other mashed closed.
::Find Jim, he is walking into a trap::
::Yes, the sentinel, dim guy with hyper senses, doesn’t listen to anyone::
“Jim. The sentinel?”
::Get up, you twit!::
Galvanised, Blair got up. That voice
brooked no argument. Even the arms master at
But the voice was now silent.
“Jim? Trap. He said that he was going to see the knife seller.” Blair shook his head again. “Who am I talking to?”
The data unit lay abandoned under the bed. Blair snatched it up – he was going to need the picture to find the man.
Blair staggered out of the room. He bounced off the banister and rebounded off more than one wall as he staggered down the stairs. Rafe’s Aunt came out of her rooms. Blair blinked owlishly at the woman and then rolled out of the door and onto the street. It was dark, but surprisingly clear. The light of one moon – Blair couldn’t remember which one it was – illuminated the street. Extending a finger, Blair pointed it in the direction of the fair and then followed it all the way.
Blair poked Raymond in the centre of his chest. “Where is the sentinel?”
Raymond looked down at the finger. “Who, vai dom?”
“Jim, my bodyguard.”
“He was here. Looking for a Dry Towner. He left.”
“Where did he go?” The
“Vai dom!” Fear coloured the man’s voice.
Abruptly, Blair reigned in. He had almost stripped the man to the core. The world was tinged with a blue cast and Blair was sure that lightning arched from his finger tips.
“Get me some water,” Blair ordered. He planted his hands on the counter before him and let his head hang low as he strove to find control.
::Jim:: he tried and failed. His thoughts were chaotic, his focus non-existent. Blindly, he gripped the matrix at his throat. It refused to kindle. He was mind-dead, trapped within his own thoughts. ::Celeste::
The hairs on the back of his neck rose and Blair wondered if he had managed to contact the sensitive Keeper.
Blair smelled the heady aroma of chocolate, one of the few Terranan imports that passed through customs. Standing straight, Blair took the mug. The contents were hot, warming his chilled guts. He was going to ream Jim limb from limb when he caught up with the man. The stimulant and the sugar bolstered him, fighting the lingering effects of the drug.
“Where did my bodyguard go?”
“I don’t know. I swear, I do not know. He left.”
Blair saw the truth in his words. “Do you know the man that he hunts? He is Federation.”
“There are many Terranan.”
Raymond shifted uneasily. “There are many Terranan,” he repeated.
“This man is new to the city. He is an assassin and--” Blair spoke of the dark thoughts in Jim’s mind, “--I think a molester of children.”
“Children?” Raymond growled darkly.
Belatedly, Blair remembered the data pad. The screen still showed Jim’s target. “This is the man.”
Raymond leaned forward, nostrils flaring, to scrutinise the picture. He shook his head.
“He is close,” Blair said. “Jim is hunting him. My man is in danger.”
“McArran,” Raymond called. Across from the knife stall, an urchin peeled away from a gang gathered by a booth decked with braziers cooking hot food for the evening entertainments.
“Any new Terranan at Madam Pierre’s?”
Blair showed the small child the picture.
The urchin squinted at it through a veil of sooty black hair. “Dunno, could show it to
Blair followed the urchin to the gang. As one they regarded him levelly. Blair felt the weight of their hatred, awe and love, he shivered with the dichotomy. The people’s perception of the Comyn was rarely as blatant.
“I am looking for my sworn man. He searches for this gran-zu.”
Two of the youngest, grimiest, peered at the picture. Blair could tell that they really didn’t understand what they were looking at.
A lanky boy tucked close to the brazier
craned his head in the direction of the unit. Blair held it so he could see.
Finally he said, “I know him.”
“Where can I find him?”
“He’s staying at the Terranan compound. He took Connor there.”
“At the spaceport?”
“I am going to deal with this man. He will not be troubling anyone again,” Blair promised. “I need someone to go to the City Guard.”
“Me.” McArran held up his hand. “Me.”
“Go to Lord Alaric. Tell him that his cousin Blair is going to the Terranan compound and that Adam Trilys is there.”
The scrap repeated the message.
“Tell Alaric that Blair said that you should be compensated for your service.”
“Aye, vai dom.” With a blindingly white smile, McArran ran off.
Crouched down on his haunches Jim watched Trilys’ appropriated quarters. From his perch in one of the wall turrets overlooking the inner compound, his sporadic sentinel senses told him little. He only knew that the man was not in his room. It was better to lie in wait rather than keep searching through the sprawling city.
Where could the man be so late at night? Mentally, Jim chastised himself for not asking the young ensign how long Trilys had been on the planet. But if he didn’t speak the lingo and apparently didn’t have any desire to learn, what was the man doing in the city?
Changing his mind, Jim stood. He slid down the ladder with his feet on either side of the runs controlling his descent. He rubbed the sting of the burn from his palms. He crossed the gardens moving from moonlight shadow from shadow. The officers’ compound stood at four storeys with the standard balcony. Jim was familiar with the internal architecture of all official Federation structures. Testing the infrastructure of the wall with his fingertips he began to free climb. The computer lock on the balcony windows yielded to his electronic lockpick.
Trilys’ rooms smelled strange. A light floral scent made loins ache. Jim dialled down his sense of smell to nothing. He drifted forward mentally cataloguing the layout of the room. The room was as neat as a scrub’s first day at Ranger camp. Trilys was known as a control freak and the room was supernaturally tidy. Sentinel senses barely picked up the dust. The smell was annoying though. All officers’ wardrobes had safes as standard. If Trilys had picked up some contraband he would be keeping it in there. Jim knelt by the safe. He had always been pretty good at this, unsurprisingly. Sensitive fingertips coupled with better than average ears even when his sentinel senses were as sporadic as sunspots meant that he was an accomplished safecracker and lockpicker. Buck would have been proud of him as he detected the buttons on the keypad which had been pressed most often. Three buttons, one of which had been pressed more. Assuming that it was the standard four pattern there were only eight permutations.
Jim hit the right combination on the third try and the door popped open. The lower tier was filled to capacity with credits. A wooden box sat on the top tier. Carefully, Jim opened it. Three blue sapphires sat on a bedding of black silk. Picking up one, Jim manipulated it letting it capture the moons’ light. Flecks seemed to glow in the crystalline matrix.
“Wow.” Jim’s mouth fell open and he slipped into a pure zone.
“Mister? Mister Terranan?”
Jim gagged deep in his throat, but he felt so weird that it was half-hearted at best. The voice was annoyingly high pitched like a little kid.
Kid? Jim’s eyes shot open. The resultant flash of light speared him right through his brain and staked him to the ground. His gorge rose. Vomit pooled in his throat. Gagging, he knew he was going to aspirate and die. Impossibly, he was turned and as he retched vomit flowed out of his mouth. Again and again he retched until there was nothing else and he was hollow.
He tried to bring his hand up to wipe his face, but his hands were caught behind his back. Rapidly, Jim took stock. Cold floor. Cold wet floor. Nasty, cold, wet floor. Small room. His heart beat reverberated off the walls. A tiny room then, with dense sound engulfing walls. His jerked his hands and heard a chink. He was manacled.
Jim opened his eyes and rolled away from the diced carrots on the floor. A nail thin boy was crouched at his side, skinny arms wrapped around his legs, his elbows jutting out like angular bat wings. Jim saw blue eyes watching him warily from under shaggy, light brown hair.
“What’s your name--” Jim coughed and spat, “--Kid?”
“I’m called Connor,” he said in passable Terran Standard.
Using his stomach muscles, Jim sat up. He twisted his neck and wiped his chin on his shoulder. His gorge rose, but he clamped down on the reaction.
“I’m Jim,” he said eventually. ”How come you knew I was Terranan?”
Connor waved a narrow hand at his chest. Jim looked down. He was only wearing his long johns. Terran issue long johns.
Damn, his cover was broken by his underwear.
“What are you doing here, Kid? Where are we?”
Connor shuffled backwards.
“Dire says that he’s gonna sell me to the highest bidder. Guess he’s gonna sell you too.”
“Unlikely. I’m too old for him.” Jim twisted his legs under him, and struggled to his feet. He staggered around the boundary of the cell. Connor shot to his feet moving out of his way, always keeping as far away as possible.
“That ain’t what he’s selling us for.”
Jim froze. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve got laran. That’s what he’s gonna sell.”
“You were in his room. You were trapped by the matrix. That means that you got laran.”
“And you’ve got laran.”
“Yeah.” Connor stood up straight pushing his narrow shoulders back. “Ma said I was six-father got, but one of them was dressed like a prince. I know now that he was Comyn and he was my da.”
“Because you’ve got laran?”
“I got laran.” Connor raised his hands and cold blue flames flickered across his fingertips. “I can call fire.”
“Pyrokinetic,” Jim breathed.
“Pyro… pyrokinetic?” Connor tried. “Is that what it’s called? Didn’t know there was a word for it.”
“You got it under control?”
Connor shrugged. “It’s only little. Good for starting the hearth fire.”
The little scrap was lighter than a bag of Red Cross relief flour. There was no way on god’s earth that Jim was going to let Trilys take him.
“Don’t worry, Kid, I’ll get us out of here.”
“How?” Connor asked pointing at the slate grey featureless walls.
Jim studied the ceiling. “I think we’re in a transport compartment. It’s a storage unit that goes on transport vessels.”
“Are we going on a Big Ship?”
“Eventually,” Jim said shortly. “He can’t keep us in here, we’ll suffocate before we die of thirst.” Realising that his words were less than tactful he looked at the kid. Flames wreathed his tousled locks dancing a hairsbreadth away from his hair but they neither burnt nor smouldered.
“You want to turn down the flames? You’re using up air.”
“I cannae. I’s...”
“Scared,” Jim supplied.
Connor bristled, annoyed.
“Look, Kid, it’s okay. “ Jim dropped down on one knee before Connor. “I’m not too happy to be here either. My laran kind of takes me by surprise at times.”
“What’s yours like?”
“I can hear really well and see really well. I can smell everything. Sometimes when I touch stuff it makes me break out in hives ‘cause I’m so sensitive.”
“That doesn’t sound very nice.”
“It can be nice. I can lose myself in the finest wines. I love bacon sandwiches.”
The flames were ebbing apart from the occasional sparkle. Jim canted his head to the side listening closely. Someone was moving beyond the opaque plexi wall. By the change in vibrations he knew that they were coming closer. The wall slid upwards and Jim saw Trilys for the first time.
Trilys lifted his chin high but he didn’t enter the transport cabinet. “So who have ah caught? Your equipment says ranger.”
“Consider yourself under arrest.”
Trilys laughed. “You find yourself at a disadvantage, sir. Ah am the one that has the upper hand.”
Connor moved behind Jim, tucking himself out of view. Jim stared glacially at the pervert. He had never previously thought that he was a telepath or spent a millisecond considering that empathy was real, but Trilys genuinely made his skin crawl. Spending less than three days on Darkover allowed him to believe that he could sense it.
Connor twisted his hands in the back of Jim’s t-shirt. He could feel the child shivering. “What are you going to do?” Jim asked.
Trilys laughed displaying a platinum molar. “This silly planet is a gold mine, ah can’t believe it. Real telepaths, by ma sainted mother, do you know what you people are worth?”
“I’m no telepath.”
Trilys shrugged. “I know, Mr. Ranger, that you are. You got ensnared by that there matrix. Having a sure and sure method of identifying a telepath is going to net me a veritable fortune.”
“Where did you get the matrix from?”
“He killed Mestra Pogue,” Connor said clearly.
“That I did,” Trilys admitted. “It’s really rather entertaining. If you touch one of these telepath’s matrixes they seize and if you hold on to it long enough, eventually, die. Ah thought that this godforsaken backwater would be the end, but it is indeed a beginning to a whole new career.”
“You mean slavery.”
“Oh, it’s a great family tradition and has been since the dawn of time.”
“You do know that telepaths need training,” Jim said conversationally.
“Of a sort.” Trilys shrugged. “There’s a building abutting the damn castle which is reputed to be a school.”
Trilys’ plan seemed pretty clear. He would raid the Tower before he escaped. Blair had seemed pretty sure that he could protect himself, cocky in fact. What could a trained telepath do to protect himself? What could an entire Tower do?
“The Federation is collapsing in on itself. Darkover’s on the edge of the known universe. No ships are coming here. Where the Hell are you going to sell the slaves?”
Trilys smirked. “Funny that Ensign Zhou just told me that a ship is coming. What did you say? Eight days.“
“Zhou,” Jim said flatly.
“Yes, she wants to go home really badly.”
“You’ll take over the Big Ship she told you about to ensure that it goes where you want it to go. She made a deal for you to take her to Calt-it. But you’ll have an extra acquisition.”
“Yes, she is a bonny piece of meat. She’ll be worth a lot of money on Kurltwurld, not as much as you.”
“You’ll find trying to make me a slave impossible.”
“Oh,” Trilys said offhandedly, “you’re too old to train, unlike little Connor. You’ll be used as genetic material. I guess that the surgeons on Kurltwurld will enjoy figuring out what makes a telepath tick.” He flicked his wrist and a t-derringer extended from its hidden arm holster. He stepped back from the door, waving Jim and Connor to precede him.
Scowling, Jim exited. But he was really pleased to be away from the stench of the vomit. Connor moved to his side keeping away from Trilys. The corridor was narrow and was in fact a path way between stacks of containers.
“Halt.” Trilys palmed another container entry panel and the door retracted. Two small boys were huddled in the corner. The odour of urine and faeces made Jim step back. A man with dark red hair stepped out of the container patting down his Darkovan jerkin, smoothing non-existent creases in the fine satin.
“Damien, stop playing with the goods.”
Delicately, Jim inhaled, he didn’t smell sperm. The Comyn looked directly at him and Jim felt his balls retract into his body. Ephemeral nails grated down the nape of his neck. Jim jerked as excruciating fire arched down his spine. He stood within the pain knowing only agony.
As the pain eased he heard the low, sensuous laughing. Jim realised that he was on his knees. Connor wrapped bony fingers around his bicep. His hands barely spanned the breath.
The Comyn stood over Jim. “Telepath,” the Comyn judged. “Empath. Some other gifts I can’t classify.”
“Sadist,” Jim returned.
The container door clanged shut locking the two boys back in their prison.
“So what about the ship? When’s it coming? Who’s it assigned to?” Trilys asked the Comyn.
“He’s got shields as strong as any headblind idiot. We’ll need some kirian before I can go rummaging properly around.”
Jim laughed inwardly. They thought that he had information about the last ship. The Comyn strode down the pathway.
“Bring him to the security office. I’m not doing it here,” he called over his shoulder.
Trilys bristled at the perfunctory order and Jim wondered who thought who was in charge.
“Come on, ranger.”
Jim stared at the slaver insolently.
Trilys pointed his t-derringer at Connor. “If you don’t obey, I’ll hurt Connor.”
“He’s worth more to you unharmed.”
“I’ll just be breaking in a slave early.”
Jim twisted, shifting from the kneeling position. Connor tried to help, his meagre weight not lending him the strength to lift. Regally, Jim stood. Trilys was unmoved and simply pointed the gun at the child.
Blair bent forward and short sightedly contemplated the map embossed on the wall. Tracing a line with his finger, he thought of Jim, picturing the man with his honour, duty and innate sadness surrounding him like a mantle. Unerringly, his finger moved to the red sector in the top left hand corner stopping over a rectangular block. Blair squinted at the script.
“Security,” he breathed.
He set off as fast a trot as he could, accommodating his throbbing head.
Trilys pushed Jim against the back of the security chief’s plush recliner forcing his head back. Jim clenched his teeth together. He didn’t know what was in the tiny glass vial Trilys held, but he was damn sure that he wasn’t going to try it.
Trilys leaned back and then smacked him in the mouth with the stapler from the desk. Jim spat blood and teeth in Trilys’ face. The second swing made him see stars. As he lolled, Trilys upended the vial between his broken teeth. The liquor burned. He felt it trickle down his gullet, evaporating. The fumes curled up, feather like touches stroked the back of his throat and filled his sinuses.
“That was kirian, another lucrative product of Darkover. I think I’ll call it Golden.” Trilys held the vial before Jim’s eyes. The contents sparkled prettily to his rapidly strobing vision. “They’re going to like it out in the Federation. If you mix it right it’s an aphrodisiac and a hallucinogen.”
“It’ll take more than a’ aphrodisiac to let you in my pants.” Jim coughed bloodily.
“Ah, well, you see it has different effects on telepaths.” Trilys stroked a finger along Jim’s jaw. Jim held firm, not moving an inch, not giving the man the pleasure.
Trilys continued, “Makes you drop those barriers and lets Dom Damien rummage around that thick skull.”
“Mind rape,” Jim realised. A cold sweat broke out on the back of his neck. Jim grated his broken teeth together as he realised that it was Damien’s cold, clammy hand on his neck.
“So what you want to know, Dire?” the Comyn asked lazily.
“Ship. When’s it coming? Who’s on it? Whether we need a takeover or a bribe?”
Jim laughed inwardly. They were not going to have much luck finding answers to those questions. Blearily, he looked around, trying to find Connor. The reason for his semi-good behaviour was tucked in the corner closest to the door. His arms were wrapped around his scrawny chest. Jim thought that he saw flickers of fire. Jim tried to tell the kid to make his escape, get to the door, run.
Connor’s brow furrowed. He cocked his head to the side, light brown hair falling over his eyes.
“Lock the door, Dire, before the goods escape,” the Comyn directed.
Trilys hit the recessed panel on the chief’s desk. “So who is he?” Trilys asked.
“Ellison, Ranger out of Shiba Unit Two.”
“What about the ship?”
Jim could have sworn that he could feel Damien crawling through his mind. He grated his broken teeth together, white hot agony lanced through his face.
“Aldones’ mistress!” Damien stepped back shaking his head. “Give him some more kirian.”
“He’s had half a dose.”
“It’s not having an effect. He’s locked down tighter than a barrel of wine in Dom Darren’s cellar.”
Jim smirked. Once again his sentinel driven anomalous drug reactions were working in his favour. He tried to hold the kirian in his mouth and not swallow but it simply evaporated. Jim was reminded of elder flowers, light and sensuous. It was the same scent the he had felt in Trilys’ room. His guts quivered and he felt a strange lassitude settle in his balls.
Damn, it’s working.
Dom Damien crawled through his head picking and disturbing his inner thoughts. Desperately, Jim focussed on a fragment of gleaming bloody tooth on the tiled floor deliberately triggering a zone.
Blair felt the pain. He tasted the blood in his mouth as he ran to the security office. He stumbled as mental talons raked across a protected mind, scrabbling off a steel barrier formed from years of living with the noisy head blind.
Blair ran, galvanised by the fight ahead of him. He could feel the pure terror emanating from a nearby child. The fear was escalating and Blair could feel a hungry dragon preparing to unleash a maelstrom of fire.
Blair called energies to him. Fear fuelled his own response. He hit the door of the security office transforming mental effort into physical force. It smashed open swinging back on its hinges and embedding in the wall. Blair took in the small, skinny child crouched tensely in the corner. A Comyn, distinct in demeanour and presence, stood over a lax Jim Ellison. The man of many names – Jim’s target – jerked to his feet, an illegal blaster in his hands. Both men were equally dangerous in their own right. The Terranan was the unknown. Blair felt the energies rise in the weapon that he held. He moved to duck under the arching laser, but realised that the child was directly behind him. Jerking as he aborted the movement he jumped at the man. Hands outstretched, he focussed his innate telekinetic abilities, coiling the energies of the weapon back on themselves. Heat rose as he clamped his hands on the barrel. The blaster backfired, explosively. Trilys was jolted backwards. Hands seared, Blair spun to face the Comyn.
“Blair Sandier of the House of Ridenow,” the unknown observed.
Reacting without conscious thought, Blair raised his left arm protectively. The Comyn’s thrown knife embedded deeply in his forearm. Concentration broken, Blair faltered, stumbling. Pain rippled as he moved. The blade grated between bones. Teeth gritted, he pulled the knife from his body. He held it clumsily; a bad shot with his right hand. The Comyn’s slate grey eyes didn’t flicker as he lowered his knife throwing hand. He released the sentinel, letting him slither to the floor and skirted around the edge of the table.
“And you are?” Blair knew most people, if not by sight, then he knew them by feel as he journeyed mentally through the Tower relays. An inner sense told him that he did not want to touch this one’s psyche.
“Scion of the House of Elhalyn.”
Blair winced. The sons and daughters of Elhalyn were not known for their soundness of mind. The man had a matrix at his throat -- so likely this Comyn had had some Tower training, had been found wanting and then been released from the Tower.
Perversion frittered at the edges of Blair’s being, and he closed himself off to it. “You do no honour your forefathers. What were you doing with the Terranan? With this child?”
A high pitched voice shrieked and Blair saw a small figure dive on the man. Arms outstretched, hands splayed, blue fire dancing between his fingers, the child planted his hands on Elhalyn’s gut.
“No!!” the Comyn screamed.
The fire was cold blue at the heart, but at the edges it burned as red as Dah’gl’s fiendish eyes. The flames ran and the Comyn erupted like a tinder dry mountain pine hit by lightning. Flames scorched the roof of the office as Elhalyn screamed. The sweet cloying smell of burning meat filled the room. The child fell back from the inferno, rolling until he stopped by the wall. His tunic was burnt to a crisp.
“No!” Blair moved to grab the child. Energies shocked him. He felt his heart stutter as lightning ran over his skin. Juddering, he stood, unable to move as the lightening ripped through him. Then inevitably, he pivoted on one foot. Slowly, unerringly, he felt himself descending to the floor. As he slowly turned, Trilys rotated into view. Then the floor was cold against his cheek. A boot filled his vision and the lightning arched again.
“Kid?” A voice said brightly.
Blair blinked as Jim’s strange feather covered friend emerged from lush vegetation. The blue tones told him that once again he had ventured into the Overworld, but this was unlike any other version of the Overworld he had walked through.
“What is this place?”
“This is Jim’s sanctuary. He finds guidance here and succour from the spirit guides.”
“Succour? Where is he?”
“Lost.” Buck’s natural ebullience flagged.
Blair scowled as he looked at the heavy green-blue trees and bushy undergrowth edging the small clearing. The air was warm and heavy and difficult to breathe. He coughed. The weight of the moist air was unpleasant.
“Within that?” Blair pointed at the dense undergrowth.
“Yes. You have to find him.”
“Are you not his spirit guide?”
“You have to guide him back to the realm of the physical world. I can’t walk or… make love there anymore. You know, I’m dead.”
Blair nodded. It was easy to forget. Buck was slightly more present than the majority of the shades that he had met journeying. Blair carefully touched his own chest, he felt strange. What had Trilys done to him?
“Look, Kid, Jim needs help and he’d be the last one to admit it. But he’s not getting out of this one on his own.”
Blair scowled at the unfamiliar terrain. “Which way?”
“The way that you’re looking.”
“Convenient.” Blair hummed under his breath. The way of the spirit world was couched in imagery and metaphor to assist the one who walked to determine their own way. The easy answer was rarely given. Blair knew the vagaries Overworld. Jim was as likely to be standing next to him as a ways into the undergrowth. The trick was to find him.
Settling on the blue-green grass, he folded his legs. His heart beat resoundingly in his ears. He relaxed into the beat allowing the rhythm to give him focus. One step in his training had been to understand and map the patterns of a body and he used that knowledge to relax.
A mishmash of confused images swamped him. At its heart was a figure swathed in golden fire screaming. The man was thrown back and forth as if caught in a storm tide. Blair caught the screaming man and fell to the earth holding him against his chest.
Jim’s back arched as he seized. The Overworld shifted easing into familiar pastures: the grey plain spreading as far as the eye could see.
“We’re in my world now.”
The earth under Jim glowed and in the brightness, fragile flowers with delicate blue bells bloomed.
“Kireseth blooms?” Blair plucked a blossom. “Kirian? You’ve been dosed with Kireseth distillate?”
The Comyn planted his hand palm down on the sentinel’s chest. His senses mapped the flow of blood in his veins, the singing of his heart. He saw the golden vines throughout his body entwining his nerves, throttling them.
::Jim? Can you hear me?::
::Chief? I can’t see anything:: Terror threatened to overwhelm him.
“Ssshhh,” Blair soothed. “Relax. The kirian affects your senses.”
::Focus on my heartbeat. Hear its rhythm. Its beat guides you.”
The seizure ebbed and Jim slumped. Blair felt Jim’s senses locking on to him and their bodies balancing as heartbeats, breathing and flow of blood matched.
Blair snagged the thorny, ropey vines teasing them away. Each golden thread yielded to his touch until Jim lay quiescent beneath him.
“Kid?” Jim croaked.
“Hey, Old Man.”
Groaning, Jim rolled onto his side and curled into a ball. “I feel like reconstituted shit.”
“That does not sound pleasant.”
Jim gagged fruitlessly. “What happened?”
“You were dosed with kirian. It’s a drug to lower the barriers of telepaths. You were overdosed. It sent you into the Overworld – the spirit world.”
Muttering under his breath, Jim sat up. He swayed like a sapling in a summer’s breeze. “Where’s the jungle?”
Blair rocked back on his haunches. “This is my domain.”
Jim shot him a dark and leery glance, before firing to his feet. “How did we get here?”
Slowly, Blair rose to join him. “We’ve left our bodies.”
“I’ve zoned?” he growled.
“I think that’s what you call it. The Comyn of Elhalyn gave you too much kirian and you journeyed here.”
“That’s not exactly what happened.” Jim turned in a slow circle taking in the featureless landscape. ”Right, you said we left our bodies, where are they?”
“In the security office.”
“The security office where Trilys and that Comyn bastard was?” Jim asked tightly.
Blair nodded reading an imminent explosion in the ether.
“How do we get back?” Jim demanded. “Our bodies are just laying where that sick creep is.”
“Fuck! Get us back there now, Chief.”
“There’s a slight problem with that.”
“What problem?” Jim asked intently.
Blair took in a deep breath. “I think I might be dead.”
“What!” Jim paled.
Blair gingerly patted his chest. There was no wound but he could still feel the residual tingling of Trilys’ blaster.
“Trilys shot me in the back.”
Jim breathed in once, twice, heavily. The battle as he strove for control was evident as he ground his jaw and the pulse at his temple beat triple time. He failed.
“No!” He screamed his denial at the heavens above.
Awed, Blair stepped backwards.
“I will not lose another….” Jim grabbed him, clutching his biceps and gave him a good shake. “You are not dead, do you hear? You are not dead.”
Blair’s teeth clicked in his head at the force of the shaking.
“I’m going to kill that fucking bastard. I’m going to skin him alive.” Jim cocked his head to the side. “I can hear him. I can smell him. I’m going to kill him.”
Blair was released as Jim faded away, following the siren call of revenge.
Jim opened his eyes. He was lying on his stomach, hands cuffed behind him. There was an unholy stench in the air which threatened to send him back to the Overworld. A charred, crispy hunk of meat lay beside him steaming. Jim gagged and rolled onto his side away from the remains. He bumped against something that was cool. Craning his head over his shoulder he saw Blair lax at his side.
“Blair,” Jim tried to say, and pain awoke in his mouth as his broken teeth grated together. The pain was excruciating, blindsiding his senses.
“You’re awake.” Trilys followed up his words by kicking him in the side. “That was enough kirian to fell a mother boar. Tell me when the boat’s coming.”
“Go to Hell, Trilys.”
Trilys kicked him half-heartedly. The man scrabbled at his fine hair. “Ah don’t believe it. Why in the name of all the Gods that are Holy, did Ah get involved with psychics? Fire-calling psychics? Brat, are you awake?”
Connor was curled against the floorboard. He remained still. Trilys grabbed another vial of kirian from the table and crossed to his side.
“Kid, you just stay in Never Never Land.” Trilys gingerly caught a bony shoulder and pulled, jumping slightly as skinny figure flopped loosely onto his back.
“Don’t give him that crap,” Jim screamed.
“The brat killed Damien.” He flicked the cap off the vial. “I want him unconscious until he gets to Kurltwurld.”
“Don’t do it, Trilys.” Jim started as he felt the cuffs slip open.
Blair had opened the lock.
He wasn’t dead
Jim erupted to his feet and launched himself at Trilys. He hit the man low and smashed him into the wall. There was no delicacy in the attack, merely force. Bones cracked and Jim felt and heard Trilys’ shoulder pop out of its socket with a satisfyingly wet crunch. Jim pulled him up away from the child and his guide and threw him bodily out of the room. Trilys scrabbled down the corridor on hand and knees, trying to get away. Jim reached down and pulled the man to his feet. Revelling in the delicious anger, he drew back his arm to deliver a round house punch.
“Ranger Ellison--” Alaric appeared at the end of the corridor, “--stop!”
Jim didn’t even pause as he punched Trilys once again, sending him into unconsciousness. He held onto the man for a moment before letting him slump on the cold tiles.
“You took your time. Deal with this garbage,” he said before turning back to the office.
Blair had made his way painfully over to Connor and had pulled the scrappy child into his arms. Jim crouched down next to them. There was blood on Blair’s sleeve, but he appeared quite bright for someone who had been shot in the back.
“You’re not dead, Chief.”
Blair grimaced ghoulishly. “No, just feel like ‘reconstituted shit’.”
“Chief, where are you hurt?” He tried to see around Connor for the wound.
Blair gazed at him blearily. “I have a cut on my arm. But I just feel… like I’ve been looking in a matrix for too long.”
Jim laid a gentle hand on his clammy forehead and he could feel minute tremors. “I think you were just stunned, Chief. Trilys wouldn’t have wanted to damage his merchandise.”
“Oh,” Blair said and smiled weakly. “I’m so happy.”
Jim snorted. “How’s Connor?” He reached out and brushed back the shaggy hair. Connor didn’t utter a peep. There was a neat bruise at the child’s temple. Gently, he pulled back the charred jerkin. The skin beneath was unhurt.
“He’s one of mine.” Blair smiled. “He’s a telepath.”
“I know that, Chief, but how is he?”
Blair shifted him, freeing a hand so he could rest it on Connor’s head. “He’s overstretched his gift. He needs to rest and heal.”
“Oh, yes. He’ll heal and then I can teach him.”
Jim slumped and sat on the cold floor. “You’re good at the teaching gig?”
“I’m better at teaching than I am at being a member of the guard.”
“I guess I’ll have to stay around and show you a few pointers then.”
Blair smiled brilliantly.
The Big Ship blasted into the stratosphere, its fire trail slowly dissipating. Jim gazed at it, his hawk like eyesight following it well out of normal view. Beside him Blair rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet.
“Can you still see it?”
Jim folded his arms under his cape, pulling the warm folds around him. He could have gone and hooked up with the Ellison Clan shipping on the outer nebula track, but when push came to shove, he liked Darkover. There were few, if any, industrial chemicals being pumped into the atmosphere to derail his senses. The wool garments made him break out in hives, but the local silk effectively protected his skin. The water tasted sweet and the honey ale was divine.
And the people understood psychic phenomenon like no one else in the unknown universe. They had a technology which was unique. And for the most part they seemed completely unaware of their uniqueness. The new government would not be constrained by the morals and bureaucracy of the old Federation. Darkover would be a jewel to plunder. The planet’s isolation might free it from immediate pillaging but they needed someone to teach them how to fight a guerrilla war to prepare for the Expansionists’ return.
“Return?” Blair queried.
“Yeah, when they come back.”
“Have you seen it?”
“Alaric possesses the donas of the Aldaran –- foresight -- and he says that it may be many decades, if not longer, before the Big Ships return.”
“Hmmmm.” Jim watched the final vapour trail bleed into the red tinged clouds overhead. “Doesn’t hurt to be prepared.” He slung a heavy arm over Blair’s shoulders being careful of his wounded forearm. The kid elbowed him briefly but didn’t shift.
“He has taken to Tower life as if he was born to it. He is being spoilt within an inch of his life.”
“Good. The kid was too skinny; he needed feeding up.”
“So are you coming to the Tower to meet Celeste?”
“Yes. You’ve been putting it off for days. You said that once we had caught Trilys that you would come to the Tower. A wild telepath…”
“Is a danger to all,” Jim finished, squeezing his arm around Blair’s neck.
Impossible to gag, Blair telepathed, ::You need training::
“Come on then, Chief, I’ll tell you everything that you need to know about sentinels. You know we’ve been around for millennia. We used to be known as watchmen…”