On the highway leading into Cenoth, a convoy was heading in, the leading driver enjoying the moment as the day came to a slow close.
Raoul was on familiar territory now, pleased to be nearly home, safe and sound, most of the team resting and quiet behind him. The smooth sound of the engine and the hum of tires on the short stretch of blacktop leading into the city was the only sound.
Any minute now, Raoul’s motley crew would wake up and the jokers amongst them would make comment. They always did when welcoming the end of a long haul.
Their journey this time had been an extended and punishing expedition. They had been plagued with all sorts of delays and problems, but the worst of it was the trip itself. The convoy had traveled over thousands of miles of rough dirt road. Dirt is fine, as far as dirt goes, but that particular stretch of road – one of the longest into wilderness – had badly needed grading the last time they had been out that way. The corrugations had evolved into a continuation of deep ruts, and in some places the road was missing altogether, having collapsed and washed away in seasons of unheeded rains.
Crawling over that terrain at walking pace on a road subject to collapse was bad enough, but what made it worse was that the conditions kept the convoy off auto-link. That meant no one got a reprieve when the going had been most torturously slow.
There was only a scattering of settlements out that way. The small towns, raw and harsh, were the vague attempts at civilization made by mining and hunting communities. They were hardly serviced at all and when it did happen, vast stocks of supplies and equipment were sent, making it a heavy load as well.
In Cenoth, they could savor a few days of relaxation. What they really looked forward to, though, was their next destination, a little place called Martin’s Wait. It was a good place with good people an easy distance away, only ten days out on good solid roads. There they would savor a lengthy stop, one that was long overdue.
Lights cut through the trees to one side of the road and a transcoach lumbered up out of Compound Twelve. Raoul gave no thought to it save that the dark and narrow access lane looked too small to allow the people-carrier passage, the big vehicle dipping and swaying up out of the ruts, then coming to a stop at the edge of the road to give way. Raoul didn’t slow.
Aboard the emerging vehicle, Ruthless had other ideas. She darted forward out of her seat and slapped the driver on the shoulder. “Fuck him. Go, Kim!”
Was there time? Perhaps the day had been long and her judgment was flawed. Kim didn’t know. She stomped the accelerator.
Raoul saw the vehicle coming, but it was already too late. The bastard of a thing lurched forward on full acceleration right into their path. Such a big vehicle shouldn’t be able to move that fast. It was rounding quickly, blocking both lanes in the maneuver and leaving him nowhere to go.
Raoul reacted, matching main brake and trailer brake, foot and hand, keeping a true course, knowledge and experience prevailing over instinct. Bracing himself for the impact.
If he swerved, he’d tip. If he went off the road, auto-link would take the entire convoy with him. Raoul would punch this bastard right off the highway rather than take his team over the embankment.
Tires squealing, the body of the big truck trying to push past the cab, promising to jack-knife if he didn’t stay in front, Raoul eased up on the brakes and let his rig promise imminent and total destruction.
The electromagnetic buffer kicked in, cushioning the impact but jolting him violently all the same as he collided with the carrier.
The transcoach in front shuddered. The women aboard screamed in genuine panic.
“Shit!” Raoul shouted.
The buffer carried it. The threat of actual metal-on-metal condensed down to mere millimeters and then evaporated. Surprisingly powerful for such a big unwieldy machine, the transcoach powered ahead of the semitrailers while the convoy powered down. They parted slowly.
The jolt, though, had been felt right down the line. Auto-link failsafe had kicked in between the vehicles, electromagnetic buffers absorbing the impact the entire length of the convoy, although with such violent compression there would be bruises and scrapes for the entire crew.
“Fuck,” Raoul added, adrenalin still pumping.
As the danger slid away, the link disengaged buffers and resumed normal function.
A few angry shouts and exclamations came over the comm. He ignored them all, one hundred percent focused on what was happening right here. Goddamn. He’d been so relaxed a moment ago.
Aboard the transcoach, the women were ashen. Ruthless hadn’t believed that normally-so-conservative Kim would actually do it. Kim hadn’t believed she would actually do it. She continued to floor it, stomping for more power from an engine already providing its best.
As the transcoach pulled slowly ahead, Ruthless, Sasha and Tanya raced down the aisle to get a look at the driver behind them. It wasn’t fully dark yet, and they wanted to see his face.
He was about thirty years of age. He had a blocky build and a nice physique. Black hair, thick black eyebrows, he was scowling at them, transmitting a rather thrilling expression of anger and disapproval.
“Bloody hell, he looks sexy,” Sasha said. “Dangerous and sexy.” She delighted in it, bobbing up and down. She had a lot to bob with, so she knew she had his attention at once.
“You get off on danger, what are you talking about?” Tanya told her, shoving her sideways.
“Didn’t say I didn’t like it,” Sasha answered, and pulled on her top to show a little more cleavage.
Behind the wheel, Kim glanced into the rearview mirror and caught what they were doing.
“Stop trying to get his attention!” she shouted. She was still flooring it, the big vehicle drifting further ahead, taking the driver behind them out of line of sight and back into the coming night.
“We’ve got his attention,” Tanya observed, grinning.
“And you are nothing but trouble-making nymphomaniacs! I can’t believe I did that.”
* * *
Aleisha rubbed her brow. This session had been going on for hours. “I told you, I’m no good to you. I’m tired, I can’t concentrate anymore. Can we please stop?”
Sturn considered that, leaning back in his chair. So far, she had been completely useless. Did she have any skill at all? Yet she had seen something. It had seemed real enough, but was it something else again?
He made a decision. He rose and walked from the room.
Aleisha watched him go, sighed and pushed away the papers. But he was back too soon, moving purposefully, drawing her concern. Then she saw the knife held down by his right side, the big ugly blade she never wanted to see. Unsheathed, ready for use. Panic hit.
So she would die now, and for what, for not cooperating? Words of protest tumbled into her mind, but none of them made it past her tongue. It was all too quick.
Sturn grabbed at her shirt as he reached her, ripping it open with his left hand, his right swinging into action with the knife even as Aleisha gave a squeal of terror.
It was the flat of the blade that hit, slapping against her naked skin, blade and handle pushed between her breasts.
“You don’t need to try,” he told her. “It happens, right? You see them all, you feel their pain, their fear. Right?”
It was true. It was the knife. Huge. Its handle, tightly bound with thin strips of black leather, was pressed against her stomach. The long savage blade, longer than the length of her hand pointed upwards underneath her chin. It had grooves and a hole, and, oh Jesus, it let air into the wound to break the suction to let the knife come easily free for rapid reuse.
Only days ago Gail had felt the chill of it right inside her. Aleisha again felt her heart slash in two and the gush of blood like water. Earlier still a man had had his throat slit in sudden fury that cost him his life. Aleisha felt the queasiness of a slashing wound. She felt stabs that came like punches. She felt terror and surprise, occasionally even relief. Twice there was wonder when a killing wound did not inflict the level of pain expected. It was almost comfortable, a horrifying notion to a vibrant young woman like Aleisha.
As she shook with grief and anxiety, images overlapped, Chiddran and Terran and Khekarian. So many, impact after impact, all the way from so long ago intermingled with those more recent. So many had died!
Aleisha grunted at the emotional and physical pain of it all, gasping her anguish, hurting as the history of the knife continued to bombard her. All the deaths at once. Her face said it all. Sturn knew he was right, that Aleisha knew.
Suddenly the weapon was gone, leaving just the chill on her flesh, and the outrage of psychic shockwaves still assailing her senses.
Her breath rasped inward as he withdrew. She looked down at herself. With trembling hands, she closed her shirt around her, and shivered again at the savagery of it all, closing her eyes tightly.
Sturn dumped the knife on the table, and took his seat once more, as though nothing had happened, as though he hadn’t moved, his attention back on his notes.
Aleisha found her voice, her reaction, and used both.
“How can you be like that?” she shouted. “How can you do all that? How can you not care about those people? Damn you! You can just take your names and your papers, and your goddamn knife and you can shove them! I’ve had enough!”
He looked up again, taking in her distress. “You thought I was going to kill you?”
A moment later, his gaze dropped from her and his tone eased.
“We’ll have missed dinner. We’ll eat here, then go meet the team.”
Aleisha blinked, relieved, then was angry again.
“With torn clothing? That’s going to look good!”
* * *
As the convoy approached the city boundary, Raoul activated communications. “Comm. Wakey-wakey, you lot. Off auto.”
A casual, sleepy monotone came in reply. Raoul recognized Jim’s delivery. “We wakey-ed already when you nearly smashed us up.”
“Off auto,” Jackie said, the woman always professional and upbeat. “That was an impressive attention-getter back there, Raoul. Did you do that just for me?”
“Just for you,” he replied, smiling, true affection in his voice.
“Aw, that’s sweet,” someone else said.
“Count it down, please people,” Raoul said. “It’s been a long day.”
Jackie complied immediately. “Two, off auto.”
A pause. “Am I five or six?”
“Wake up already.”
“Yeah, but my sticker fell off.”
“Think of a number between one and…”
“Oh, all right. Five or six, off auto.”
“Six or seven, doin’ the same.”
“Some number after that…”
Raoul listened to their foolishness and was quietly content. His people were at their controls and taking it on manual, that’s all he wanted to know.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I got it. You’re awake.”
“Hell, man, I ended up in the foot-well,” Jim drawled.
* * *
Two pre-packaged meals straight from the microwave. Aleisha didn’t register what it was. Something with potatoes and sauce, a plastic box and a matching fork. It wasn’t inspiring.
“What, you don’t trust me with honest cutlery?”
“Should I?” Sturn asked. He was actually enjoying her company. A bit of backbone was there with all of them, but her sarcasm was somehow different and refreshing. “Anything else missing? Lit candles and flowers in a vase? A tablecloth?”
“Stephen will be wondering where I am, the whole team will.”
“No they won’t. They’ll think we’re fucking.”
* * *
The women had scarpered like wayward children. Raoul saw the offending transcoach parked just inside the city’s outer boundary where a congestion of nightclubs lit the main straight with the pulsating pinks and purples, blues and yellows of neon. The big vehicle was parked crookedly, hastily abandoned.
Raoul drove another mile and took the convoy into the huge floodlit bay, the soft glow of light and warmth from Charlie’s office a welcome sight.
Dismounting from the road trains, the drivers grouped and began the chore of unloading their own private transport. They did not wait for Raoul, knowing he would be ages with the Old Man of Cenoth. He always was. They drifted off in small clusters, heading out to Compound Seven.
Inside Charlie’s office, Raoul took up the clipboard waiting for him. He crossed the room away from the desk and settled his stocky frame on one of Charlie’s comfortable sofas to fill out the necessary forms and sign over the delivery. As he bent his head to the chore, his second-in-command made herself comfortable in front of Charlie’s desk.
Jacqueline was tall, lean, with good muscle tone and spectacular long blonde hair plaited in a single thick cord down her back. The length of it was a striking feature in its own right. Not many people in the pioneering workforce tolerated the extra hassle of maintaining such a mane. She was disheveled after so long a day, grimy with sweat, fatigued and happy to be home.
In amongst Charlie’s office paraphernalia on his desk there were discarded coffee mugs and plates. Also a cat, a big ginger monstrosity formally called Willow who positively radiated demand, but promised fair reward for a person’s devoted servitude. Jackie complied without thinking, scratching the tough old head.
Raoul had long ago explained to Charlie that since his cat was secretly another species and had grown up to be an elephant, he should actually be called Willow-the-Antonym. Willow, after all, was slender. That was willowy, Charlie had countered and pointed out that a willow tree could grow quite large and be very pleasantly rotund. So could an elephant, Raoul had reasoned. Charlie refused to call his cat Willow-the-Antonym. He also refused to call him Willow-the-Elephant, Willow-the-Whale or Willow-the-Fat-Fluffy-Thing. Finally it settled down to Willow-C. C for Cat, according to Charlie. C for Corpulent was Raoul’s contention.
Now, keeping true to ancient tradition, Willow-C rumbled a contented purr, not bothering to open his eyes.
“What is it, Charlie? Your favorite team is in and you’re not your usual self,” Jackie commented.
“I’m sorry. I’m pleased to see you, of course I am. It’s something else.”
Jackie smiled tiredly. Suppressed a yawn. “Bad day?”
“I think so.”
Raoul glanced up, but Jackie was already on it. “You think so? You don’t know?” She was not overly concerned. Charlie’s worries tended to be minor in nature, the type that usually sorted themselves out, given time. But tonight Charlie sat back in his chair and fiddled with his thin gold-rimmed spectacles, tapping them gently next to the keyboard. It was a gesture signifying a deeper anxiety for him.
“Jackie? How do you feel about intuition?”
The question surprised her. She answered with simple straightforwardness. “Same as I feel about keeping my eyes open. It’s essential to defense. Why?”
“A new girl arrived a few days ago. A nice girl. A young one, qualified to drive, and that’s about it. You know the type.”
She did. Driving was standard to the younger branch of team membership. Older applicants tended to be well qualified and already experienced in the role they promoted. They came in as pilots, communications experts, engineers and so forth. The young and the eager just grabbed what qualifications they deemed necessary to gain them acceptance and in they came. Sure enough, there was sufficient demand for them.
“An adventurer, eh?” Jackie asked, smiling again.
“Quite keen,” Charlie replied matter-of-factly, then frowned. “At least at first. She’s gone to Stephen’s team, just today, but there’s something wrong, I think. She was picking up a lot of bad stuff before she went.”
“Then why did she go?”
Such a rational commonsense question was one that Charlie didn’t want to answer. He did anyway, fidgeting and awkward with it. “Because I talked her into it. I don’t like that and it’s worrying me.”
“Ah.” His concern was genuine. Jackie ditched the smile.
“It seemed so extreme, what she sensed, what she saw.”
“Okay, don’t blame yourself. If there’s something amiss, it’s not your doing. Which team was it? Stephen’s? Can’t place a Stephen.”
“New here, about six months. The team with the Khekarians in it.”
“Oh, heard about them, yeah. Creepoids, if you ask me.”
Charlie’s tapping hand went still. He looked at her in astonishment, then delivered his words slowly. “And what makes you say that?”
“They’re breathing,” she deadpanned, causing a smile from Raoul, unseen by the two. “Here,” she went on. “What’s the problem?”
“I’m not sure. Take a look for yourself. I’d appreciate your expertise on this team.” He rose, waving Jackie around to take his place behind his monitor.
Jackie beamed a smile of joy at the unexpected opportunity.
“Oh goody, a perv.” She dived out of her chair and quickly swapped places with him, settling herself to study the particulars of Stephen’s profile.
Raoul looked their way once more, his dark eyes smiling. Jackie would love the inside view. He watched her for a moment, wondering what interesting snippets her analytical mind would uncover, then went back to his chore, working quickly through the remaining documentation.
Jackie was silent for some time. Her expression was now serious, her fingers tapping across the keyboard occasionally as she flipped pages, or diverged completely to look at linked files.
“The Khekarians have been with him a long time,” she said, speaking across the room to Raoul. “The man is called Sturn. He’s Terran-Khekarian, going by his name, and joined Stephen out in the Far Reaches a decade ago. The woman is full-blood, she came in with him. Sevi, her name is.”
She would take a closer look at their files, but it was the Terran women she was more interested in first up. She followed their links and tried to set them into some type of order.
Raoul got up and returned the clipboard and pen to Charlie.
There were two chairs in front of Charlie’s desk, Charlie had taken Jackie’s place in one of them, and now Raoul took the other.
“I wonder where Stephen picked them up?” Jackie continued, her mind still on the Khekarians. “Has he been touching the Khekarian Expanse?”
“There’s no record of that,” Charlie supplied.
“All right, so forget them for the moment. You’ve got a couple of ugly spots here besides that one. First up you’ve got Stephen out along the Far Reaches for a long time. That’s bad news.”
“Why?” Charlie frowned, not understanding.
“It’s not nice out there, Charlie. Stephen was working and living there for thirteen years. That could mean nothing at all, but it could also indicate that what we’re looking at is a piece of dirt that’s come in.”
“In what way?”
She blinked. “I need to spell it out?”
“Watch what you tell him,” Raoul commented simply.
Charlie shot him a frown. “Excuse me?”
Jackie was forthright. “You want me to keep this a secret?”
“No,” Raoul informed her with deliberate patience. “I want you to be sure. He’s got a girl in there he cares about.”
Jackie looked away from them both, her gaze back on the screen. She sighed. “Well, I’m sorry about that, but I haven’t gotten to Ugly Spot Two yet.”
“Tell me,” Charlie said, immediately.
Instead, Jackie asked him a question. “Is he rough with his people? Female, especially.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen any evidence of that. One of the things bothering me, though, is that Stephen reported a death. An accident, so he said. That was a woman.”
“Was it an accident?”
“How could I tell that? They didn’t bring back the body. Buried her or dumped her out on the road.”
“At least he reported it.”
“He callously informed me that he wanted her off the payroll. And that makes three deaths in their last year, Jacqueline, two of them out at E-Twelve.”
Raoul didn’t like to hear that. He frowned at the supervisor. “Hell, you didn’t know he was like this?”
“How could I? He’s been here only six months. Seemed quiet enough. Some of the planets are tough, Raoul, you know that. People die out here, it happens. Twelve is almost as raw as the Far Reaches, that’s true, but Extension Eight isn’t in that category, so what’s the excuse here?”
“Accidents happen everywhere, Charlie.”
“Have you noticed there’s been no transfers?” Jackie asked.
“That’s another of the things that bothers me.”
“He’s retaining control.”
“You mean he’s an asshole,” Raoul said, putting it more bluntly.
“Looks like it.”
“What exactly does that mean?” Charlie asked.
“Could mean a lot of things, or could mean nothing,” Raoul supplied.
“Do you want to hear Ugly Spot Two, or not?” Jackie asked.
“I thought we just did.”
“Nope, not yet.”
“Tell me,” Charlie ordered.
“His expertise is in his men. His engineers, pilots, everybody of any status is male. Their ages on recruitment range in the twenties. His women, though, the Terrans that is, all fit in the cute-wannabe category. Teenagers. Sixteen, seventeen. Probably a minor or two. Good looking as well.”
Raoul shook his head. “Don’t go this path, Jack. People with age and experience are usually settled in a group. Everybody recruits young.”
“He’s bringing in babies, Raoul. I’m not trying to scare Charlie, but there are facts here that fit a very ugly profile. Two of the three recent deaths are of women at the end of their contract term. The first and this last one. The one in the middle was a newcomer from E-Twelve. I think she tried to slip her noose.”
“Noose?” From Charlie.
“That’s a serious accusation,” Raoul warned, not wanting her to say the word he knew was fast approaching.
Charlie sent another frown in his direction. “Never mind about that.” Then across the desk, he repeated, “Noose?”
“Leash. Charlie, I think what you’ve got here is scum. Might be a slaver.”
Raoul groaned. There it was. “That just means the team is locked down, Charlie.”
“No it doesn’t. I know what a slaver is. They’re criminals.”
“Closer in, yes, but not out here, not technically,” Jackie told him. “They’re just ugly.”
“They break the law, Jackie. Federal law.”
“There’s no such thing as federal law. Out here it’s just an idea. Federal guidelines, perhaps.”
“They’re laws,” Charlie objected. “Rules of civilization.”
“Rules are suggested, then accepted or rejected by town councils. Town councils decide what is best for their own community and they enforce what they see fit as they see fit. Road teams are nomadic tribes. They have the same rights as the towns do and can accept or reject any law they decide to. Slavers are control freaks. Everyone is locked into place for the duration, the work is tough, continuous, but the pay usually makes up for it. It’s their business, Charlie, that’s all there is to it.”
Charlie shook his head. “Locked into place? It wouldn’t work. It couldn’t work. Locked down by their contract, yes, all TRACTs operate that way, but they can still transfer, quit. They get holidays and sick leave, all their rights, Jackie.”
She sighed and looked across at Raoul, as though he might step in and help her explain it, but his returning gaze was sour and uncompromising, making it clear she was on her own.
“I’m not talking about their contract. The SEAS contract is a piece of paper. The hard-core restriction is teleporter.”
Raoul disagreed. “A lot of crews sponsor the wearing of teleporters as safety for their members, you can’t judge by that.”
“In rough zones, yes,” Jackie countered. “Not usually on a planet like this one. But okay, by itself it’s not conclusive, granted. But combined with the female half of the group made up of young and pretty girls with no discernible skills except the minimum required by SEAS, it does rather point the finger.”
“Drivers,” Charlie supplied, his throat going dry.
“Dear God, I let her walk in there. How do I get her out?”
Jackie gazed back at the computer screen. Raoul was giving her a look she didn’t normally encounter from him, which made it worse. “I’m sorry,” she attempted, not looking at either of them.
“How do they function?” Charlie demanded. “How do these teams operate?”
Raoul slumped back in his chair, his arms folded and his expression cool, waiting for Jackie’s answer.
Jackie gave up trying to ignore his attitude and took him full on. “Don’t look at me like I’m doing something wrong.”
“Charlie is fretting and you’re giving him a horror story.”
“I’m giving him facts, Raoul.”
“Supposition, Jack, not facts.”
“I’m going to find out,” Charlie informed them both. “Go on, Jackie, I want to know.”
“Look, just accept that it’s usually worth it in the long run. A fat pay packet and bonuses.”
“Bonuses?” Charlie asked.
Jackie thought ahead and told him, “Don’t ask.”
“Because it’s just easier if you don’t, okay? Mostly it’s money.”
Charlie frowned at her.
“Everyone gets a fat pay packet, okay?” Jackie defended.
“How gratifying,” Charlie commented bitterly. He was not dumb.
Jackie pushed on. “They’re on the go all the time, right? Ahead of schedule. Keen as eagles. Teams like this rake in a lot of money, but they sometimes supplement that with something questionable. Contraband. Wildlife, drugs, whatever pays locally or has galactic appeal. It’s all unethical, but it happens. If this lot is into that, you might – might – get E-Six interested. The Khekarian teams sell people.”
“You done?” Raoul prompted.
Jackie had hardened to his disapproval and shrugged a gesture of indifference, gave a lukewarm, “Oops,” then added angrily, “Hey, I’m sorry, but Charlie asked for my opinion.”
“You forgot to tell him about your suspicious mind. You’re an ex-soldier, Jackie, not an ex-cop. How can you be so sure on this?”
“Because I studied scum of the Universe and guess what? The Khekarians aren’t the only ones to have bastards.”
“What the hell are you doing with me, then?” The argument was heating up.
“Studying for my diploma!” she shot back.
It took Raoul a moment to realize what Jackie was calling him. His expressive eyebrows shot up, then crashed down again in consternation. “What?”
“As for getting her out, you probably can’t.” She was back to addressing the Old Man, leaving Raoul with nowhere to go. “Not without breaking their laws, which puts you straight into their hands, their jurisdiction. They could execute you.”
“Jesus, Jackie!” Raoul turned to Charlie, balancing these views with some of his own. “Listen, a slaver’s not likely to recruit here, right? There’s no proof he murdered anyone. Where’s that going to get him? If he’s a slaver, teleporters can be dealt with, and if he’s a killer, all his people would run.”
“I would,” Jackie agreed.
“No, you wouldn’t,” Raoul informed her, blandly. “You’d take him down.”
“Oh, yeah.” Jackie grinned. “Forgot.”
Charlie looked washed out and depleted. These ugly thoughts and notions were not something he could shrug off so easily.
“I know what you’re saying, Jackie, you’re saying the womenfolk might be some kind of perk. A benefit given out.”
“Could be,” Jackie acknowledged, but immediately relented. “Raoul’s right, you know. That team’s formation and history spell danger to me, but then, I do have a suspicious mind. The Khekarians with them just add a bad smell. I could be wrong about all of it. Maybe he just… you know…”
“Likes young women?” Charlie asked.