Orange Sky

Bear first spied the Imps on their wing-beasts as he slid down a path of loose stone. They hung between him and the canyon’s far wall, patrolling for dinner or for their more desired quarry, an escaping slave. The sight gave him new urgency. The life of the girl who fled downslope held value only for him. The slave hunters would bring her back as a corpse, to hang for a time on the City outskirts. 

The unending hunt went in cycles. A few new slaves would run, the hunters would catch them, and the rotting bodies would forestall the rest until they had to be taken down. Eventually, newer slaves who had never seen the bodies would run again. The slave-hunters got by during the lulls between cycles by hunting the meager game of the canyon, using their blood money in ‘good times’ to pay for new weapons and liquor.

The mine and the Masters’ city receded behind him as he hurried to reach the girl. A new Hadreine cloud boiled forth over the edge of the immense canyon, glowing ocher anger that warped the sun into a soul-maddening demon. Of all the color-twisting living clouds in the world, the Hadreine were the worst, often turning the entire sky brilliant orange. The rocky wasteland around him shifted the same glaring hue.

He had begun this pursuit at the mine, beside the truncated mountain where the Masters lived. The great open-pit mine where he normally worked also lay above the canyon floor, but not so far up, and the fleeing slave had easily seen the city from there. Predictably, she fled the opposite direction into the wastes below.

At first, he’d followed the footsteps out of the tailings pile, and then the natural path away. He’d finally spotted the distant figure running, already astonishingly distant for such a short head-start.

The Masters were placing great trust in him, trust earned over many years of honest labor and integrity. He dared not fail them… but that was not his deepest motivation. He dared not fail her… for her life now depended utterly on his success.

One ten-day ago he could not have imagined being so utterly consumed with worry over another person. His wife and children had perished long ago, and he’d delayed with one excuse after another from taking another to his side. What had this girl done to him, to make him so desperate?

Bear conquered his unvoiced objections and accepted the reward in the spirit intended. If he had learned nothing else in this hellish place, he knew that the Masters did not understand their crimes. He looked at the leash in his hand, and prayed to his gods not to curse him for it.

The reward stared back at him. She knelt beside the Master, her green eyes lit with terrors he could only imagine. She possessed a strong, proud face, the face of a free-woman, and skin far softer, smoother and lighter than any he had ever seen on an adult human. Her long black hair made her look like a woman from his homeland and her barely covered body, shapely and toned, pulled at his manhood. She possessed ample charms and some man would enjoy them no matter how Bear chose. Being that man, and treating her as if they both still knew freedom, would be the only comfort he could offer her.

What she imagined when she saw him, he could not imagine. Her eyes were naked, so if she came from a place where they did not wear the Raas, she might never before have seen the golden sheaths that covered his eyes. Her leash lay in the hand of a man more than a head taller than her, with a heavy jaw and strong nose, raggedly cut brown hair down to his broad shoulders and massive arms strengthened first by years as a warrior on the plains, then by years as a slave in the mines. Worse, he wore only a loin-cloth and a coating of sweat and spatters of blood. They had brought him directly from the mines and had given him no chance to clean up before presenting him to the Director.

Not an ideal first impression for a wife to have of her new husband.

Blood tinted the steel slave hoop in her right ear. She’d not worn it for more than a few hours. Absently, he touched his own hoop, then covered the habitual gesture by scratching the nape of his neck.

She also wore restrainers on her wrists and ankles. He looked up at the Master, an older version with the scars and wear of centuries covering its green-gray exoskeleton, and saw that it held a control out toward him with its lower manipulators, expecting him to take it. The thought turned his stomach and he prepared to refuse.

The Master anticipated him, its enormous black eyes staring into his with meaning. “If you cannot restrain her, and she runs,” it thrummed in its reedy voice, “we will use it instead. You might choose to use it sooner, and at a lower setting.”

He took the box. From the girl’s eyes, he could see she’d already experienced its function.

The Master continued, “You are dismissed, Bear of Section Three. The work shift has already ended. Return to your home.”

He bowed to the Master, and turned to leave. The leash tightened, and he stopped barely in time to not drag the girl off her knees. He looked back at her and kept his voice courteous.

“If you do not follow willingly, I will have to use the control. The Masters permit me no alternative. Do you understand?”

Her hands came together, rubbing the Restrainers on the opposite wrists. Yes, she understood.

“Come,” he ordered, tugging lightly on the leash. She pressed her bow-shaped lips together slightly, then stood. Thankfully, she followed without resistance when he began walking again.

They drew attention from every species during the long dusty walk home. From the Fortress, they needed to travel through the Residences, past well-watered sanctuaries of greenery, and across the dirty bustle of the Bazaar on their way to the Human Quarter. Slavery might be the most common of existences in the City, but people here rarely saw slaves in need of such restraints. They lived their whole lives under the Canopy which reduced the cloud glare to a benign glow. They similarly insulated themselves from such vulgarities as leashes and restrainers by insuring that only the best-behaved slaves lived in the innermost of the outer circles, to act as a wall between the civilized and the uncouth.

His and the girl’s states of dress hardly helped matters. It didn’t embarrass him. A warrior of his homeland would wear the same simple loincloth and his armband marked him as a trustee rather than a wayward raw laborer, but these people rarely saw human men so lightly clothed. The girl actually wore more than a woman of his homeland would before childbearing, except that the bottoms were too brief. From what he understood, her simple clothing, covering only breasts and crotch, would not be unheard of in a Residence slave-girl within their own estate, but those would never clothe themselves so lightly in public.

The other workers of his residence block, a part of that innermost circle, greeted him with hoots and jeers, and a few bawdy but appreciative comments concerning his new mate, as they left the brick pavement and walked through the narrow dirt streets near his home. At least here, they were among people dressed more like themselves, although no one else wore leashes or restrainers. He hoped he would be able to remove these soon. Surely she had noticed by now that she alone suffered that indignity.

He regretted now that he had not taken the bigger quarters they’d offered him four ten-nights ago. He’d seen such an extravagance then as useless. What did an unmarried warrior, or an unmarried slave, need with such space?

Well, he’d needed it for when he got married, obviously. Now, his new wife would huddle in his tiny adobe hovel with him, embarrassed at her poverty and not knowing she should at least be thankful he no longer lived in a common-hall tent in the outer blocks. Hopefully, the gods would grant the Company offer him a larger dwelling again, before the girl bore fruit.

She also needed to be thankful that the Canopy extended this far, he realized. Her eyes were naked, like the Sinthri who used eye-covers instead of Raas, or like one of those life-long Residence-dwelling slave-girls. If not for the fresh blood on her hoop, he would have thought she was one of those, born to her job as a house-servant, never seeing the crudities of the outer world. She certainly was no Sinthri, with that pale skin.

They entered his little place through a door that even she needed to stoop slightly to clear. He left the door open behind him so he could get a lamp lit. He didn’t want to open the window to every prying eye in the block which was eager to stare in at the new girl. He might have opened the door into the tiny yard behind the house, but thanks to the walls of surrounding buildings, that door allowed little light in.

She watched him work, as she stood in the center of the room where he had dropped her leash. He set the control on the table, his only piece of furniture, and pulled his lighter from its hiding spot. Once the lamp burned, he adjusted the wick, then slipped on the chimney, a rare luxury. If the builder had not nailed the lamp to the wall, he suspected it would have been stolen by now.

He carefully hid away the lighter, an equal rarity, and went to close and bar the door. Only then did he realize that his wife had escaped while he turned his back. He cursed, grabbed the control from the table, and dashed out after her.

A shriek told him she hadn’t got far. A crowd of his neighbors ringed her, and One-fist held her leash, laughing harshly as she shrieked and pulled at it. One-fist looked at him and grinned, nodding his head at the control in Bear’s hand.

“You gonna do it? Come on, let’s see her dance!”

Nearly a year before, One-fist had also received a wife as a reward, for what service Bear did not know, and she too had been in restrainers at first. She’d been a misbehaving Residence slave, and her original owners sold her to the Company, where she’d taken poorly to her new life. One-fist gleefully used the control on her every excuse he got, little restrained by neighbors who disliked her constant whining about how filthy their block was compared to her old home. The block manager had finally recommended her for release from restrainers, out of fear she would lose the baby she now carried. The block kept careful eyes on the two of them these days. They might not all understand as fully as Bear how wrong One-fist’s treatment of her had been, but babies were precious to most humans.

Bear said nothing, only walked slowly up to her. She stopped struggling upon seeing the control in his hand. He put his arm through the strap so the thing could hang from his shoulder, then took the leash from One-fist. By this time, the chatter had died, as everyone could see the anger in his eyes. They all knew his opinion of One-fist.

“My wife is merely confused,” he stated quietly to his neighbor and the hushed crowd. “Thank you for preventing her from becoming lost.”

He turned to walk back, and by the charity of the gods, she found the wisdom not to resist. They re-entered the house and this time, he barred the door.

She glared defiantly at him. “I’m not your ‘wife’! You don’t marry someone by putting her on a leash!”

He crossed quietly to the door into the open kitchen behind the hut, leading her through it with the leash in his hand, and leaving her seated on a stone bench against the wall so he could work. After stirring the coals from the morning fire to reinvigorate them, he added new fuel, then drew water from the cistern and filled the cook pot. He refilled the drawing jar and set it on the bench beside her.

“Drink if you’re thirsty.”

He put the pot on to boil, then knelt down to lift the lid from the storage pit.

The girl did indeed drink, as she watched him withdraw his cutting board, a handful of dried meat and a few tubers and herbs. He sat down next to her with the board on his knees and drew his knife to skin the tubers. From the manner in which she watched, he suspected she had not eaten yet that day.

“That isn’t enough food for two,” she observed. “I suppose you’re going to starve me if I don’t cooperate with you?”

“You are my wife. I am obligated to provide for you,” he replied shortly. “Of course, most wives would be doing the cooking, but I can see it is too much to hope for at present.”

“I’m not your wife,” she repeated. “You aren’t obligated to do anything for me.”

He didn’t reply, simply stood up after he finished cutting up the ingredients, and checked the pot. The water had begun to simmer, so he scraped the food into it. He contemplated the stew for a moment, then took the drawing jar to wash the board off into the latrine in the back corner of the yard.

“Over here is the latrine,” he told her. “Make sure everything goes into the hole. Go anywhere else, and it could get into the cistern or the storage pit, and make us both sick. The rains wash it out, down into the sewer. We have lime for when the rains don’t come quickly enough. Do you understand what I am talking  about? Do they have these things where you come from?”

“Where I come from,” she said with a voice trembling with indignation, “they would consider this dirty and barbaric!”

“They understand to keep the latrine things away from other things?” he asked as he went back to the cistern and refilled the jar.

“Of course!” she sounded shocked.

“Good. I did not mean to offend you.” He sat back down next to her, where he could also reach to stir the pot. “Some come here from places where they move around too often to learn better. We Gibrak are also nomads, so we might have been like that, but our ancestors once built cities. I know nothing about you or your homeland. Is it far away?”

He heard her stomach growl, loudly, and she put her hand to her belly, looking embarrassed. He smiled encouragingly. “Dinner will be ready in not too much longer.”

“You sure that was enough food for both of us?” she asked weakly, fiddling nervously with her leash she watched him take a draft from the jar.

He swallowed and chuckled. “Not by itself. I have plenty of bread from this morning inside. I always buy too much, because I am very hungry before breakfast.”

She smiled weakly. “My mother always says, ‘Never shop for food on an empty stomach.'”

He put the jar down and reached to touch her collar. She flinched, then stared warily at him as he inspected it. He dropped his hand. “Sorry. I was worried that it looked too tight, and that man yanked you around hard. If you don’t try to run away again, I can ask the block manager to have it removed.”

“You can’t take it off yourself?” she wondered.

He shook his head. “The clasp is a locking mechanism. It could be cut off, but no smith in the city would dare. I ask you to please behave yourself, so she will approve removing it. We must have no more scenes in front of our neighbors.”

She inspected his face uncertainly, then looked away, down at the leash in her hand. “You’re the one dragging me around by it. Why would you want it off?”

“Because I object to it as much as you do,” he answered quietly.

“You don’t want to keep your little slave-girl tied up?”

He recognized the suggestive tone of voice, but did not grasp what it was she meant to suggest. With caution, he answered the only part he understood. “You are not my ‘slave-girl’. I am a slave myself, so I cannot own another. The Company which owns both of us gave you to me as a wife.”

She stared at him in surprise. “You’re… a slave? You’re just walking around like a free man!”

“I am owned by the Company of Mines. If I strayed from the city other than to go to the mines and work, or if I did not work my shift, I would be punished, and I would no longer be able to ‘walk around like a free man.'”

He touched the hoop earing. “That is the sign that someone owns me. Every human you meet in the City will be wearing one. No free human would ever live in this place.”

“They said I was your reward. Is it because you’re being a good boy? You behave yourself?” Her tone spoke much of what she thought of the man who did not rail against his chains. She had not tasted the pain of the restrainers enough times to know better. He’d felt it often in his first year.

He ignored the unspoken criticism and answered, “Being a ‘good boy’ does have rewards. I have this house and the other things you see because I follow the rules. You… you are my reward for something else. They honored me greatly with a gift of such great price. I expect if they hadn’t given you to me, you would have gone to the Residences to be wed to a valued man-slave.”

He stirred the pot, inspecting the thin stew within. The ingredients had begun to soften. They sat for a time without speaking.

“What did you do?” she asked eventually.

After a pause to keep his composure, he replied, “I killed a man this morning. I caught him in the midst of a crime. The Masters approved of my actions, and decided I ought to father more like me.”

She said nothing, merely stared at him. He looked away, back to the cook-pot, stirring it unnecessarily.

“What crime?”

“Rape. One of the water-girls at the mine. The Masters are not human, but that crime resembles one they know and revile among themselves.”

She said nothing for a time after that. He got up  to return to the storage pit, retrieving a jar of Merresh paste. He scooped out a handful of it and tossed it into the boiling pot, then returned the jar and washed his hand off. He stirred the pot and watched the paste slowly dissolve into it, forming the rapidly thickening broth.

Finally, she asked, “Why would they care if one slave raped another?”

He looked up, surprised, then realized she was echoing thoughts he’d had in his early days here in the city. “You and I see what they do, keeping us as slaves, and consider them evil. I think, being not human, they do not understand their crime. When they see evils which they do understand, they react in an honorable way. I do not think they intend to be evil.”

He shoved the handle for the pot through the holes in its rim, and picked it up to carry inside. “Follow me,” he ordered, and brought it inside to the table.

They ate bread and stew in silence. She plainly had not eaten in a long time, the way she wolfed down the meal. He avoided taking a second helping until he knew she would get enough.

She belched loudly, then looked mortified. Slaves from some parts of the world considered body noises rude, and it clearly was so where she came from. “Sorry,” she stammered.

He smiled. “You should eat more slowly.”

“They only gave us water,” she said quietly. “I haven’t had food in days.”

He wished she’d mentioned that earlier, and hoped she would hold down what she just ate. He would have left the meat out, had he known how long it had been. She didn’t seem to be getting sick, though.

“I need you to understand something,” he told her. “It is something very important”

She looked up at him, a bit wary. He smiled, hoping to encourage her, then grew serious again.

“Whether you accept me or not, all here know you to be my wife, not because of your wish or mine, but because the Company which owns you says so. I could have refused you. I did not, because… when I saw how terrified you were, I did not want them to give you to someone else… possibly someone like the man who caught you when you ran from me. When you know some of the neighbors, you should ask about his wife.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel better?” she asked in a sarcastic tone.

“No. It’s supposed to make you understand my only motivation. I had intended to wait until I could marry a Gibrak girl, but we Gibrak are few in the City, and no bride has been available. I am no rapist. I will not force you to lie with me. You need to know, though, that if you produce no child, eventually they will make me give you up to another man. As your husband, he would have the right to force you. The Masters do not understand a forcible act between married partners as rape. They would not punish him.”

“So I had better do it with you voluntarily instead? That’s the important thing I need to know?”

“No. I felt you should not make that choice ignorant of what you risked. You can still choose to gamble that you get a man more to your liking, as long as you know that you might get worse, instead. I have said all that I will say on the subject. In other matters… until you have a child, they will send you to work with the women in the mines, the ones who carry water and food to us. Here at home, though, whether or not you choose to be my wife when we lie down, you should at least help me cook and clean.”

He still had sight of the fleeing girl, but his desperation held a new level of alarm now. He’d seen in his last glimpse of her that somewhere in the process she’d lost her sun-hat. Under the mid-day glare, she would be suffering rapid loss of moisture, unused as she was to this arid land.

The territory she’d led him into was a rocky nightmare of crags and narrow paths where enormous boulders crashed down from the canyon walls in some distant past. He carried a spear to defend himself against the beasts of this nasty land, and possibly to defend the girl against the slave-hunters.

The headset he wore crackled to life, as the voice of the superintendent, a Master, hummed in his ears. “Bear of Section Three. You are far away now. We are sending one of the carriers aloft to keep track of you.”

“My greatest thanks, Lord. Can you still see my location?”

“We do not see, but devices I probably cannot explain to you can track your headset, in a manner similar to one of your kind following an animal in a forest.”

“My greatest thanks, Lord. I fear becoming lost in this jumble of rocks. The girl is still running.”

“So we suspected. You do not intend to run as well?”

“Only as far as allows me to reach the girl, Lord. There is nowhere here for me to survive. This is territory too unlike my home. I do not know how to live here. Running is suicide for the girl, and would be for me as well.”

The Master said nothing further. Likely, his answer satisfied it. In truth, he thought he might be able to survive this land, if not for the girl and the slave-hunters. He doubted she would last, and he doubted he could outfox the trackers of this land.

He nearly did not see the diving wing-beast before it was too late. He dove behind a rock as an Imp’s javelin broke on it.

“Prey! Prey!” he heard it screaming, and could hear others echoing it from the distance. The foul thing leered down at him from over the beak of the hovering beast, its signature shock of straight gray hair and its dark skin making it look  like a malevolent old man with pointed teeth. The Raas-covered eyes of the wing-beast glowed evilly, the gold sheaths reflecting the Hadreine-tinged light.

Imps had once been human, the old scrolls said. The Masters had bred them from humans, as they had the Pordrun and several other races, in an attempt to make more acceptable servants. Ultimately, the original humans remained the most desirable breed, and the other spawn of their race had been let go to live and breed as free beings. Some of them even grew rich in the city and lived like Masters, with Residences of their own. Humans like his own ancestors, whether through manumission or escape, had slipped out into the free world as well, to live in the Masters’ shadow until caught by slavers and sold back to them, and other races had been brought to the world to labor as slaves alongside humans, but the Imps and their kindred persisted as a reminder that humans might have been truly free, if they had not proved so damned useful.

Another javelin struck before he yelled out, “You damned idiots! I’ve got a travel pass! You’re supposed to check first!”

“Me no stupid! Shut up you!” the thing screamed as it launched another. This javelin didn’t break, and he grabbed it up, wondering if he could hurl the little thing. It was hardly more than an arrow to him; Imps were less than half man-sized, the only thinking creatures small enough to ride a wing-beast. Their muscles moved much faster than human muscles, enabling them to propel the little things much faster than he might.

“Hold, Hold, Hold!” cried out another as it came in. “Speaking thing says let him go!”

The Imps winged away without another word to him, leaving him to wonder if the ‘speaking thing’ was a communicator like his headset and they’d been warned off by the Masters, or some device that detected the travel pass in his armband. Perhaps he would never know.

Now, he prayed fervently that Sabina had seen them attacking him, and had dove for cover. He couldn’t see her anymore, but he didn’t see Imps diving on prey in her direction. He quietly begged the gods to grant her the understanding that she should stay down.

In the waning light of that first night with her, he’d laid out the furs for sleeping, then went to the latrine to do what is done there, using some extra water and a cloth to clean the blood spatters off.

She was biting her lip and glancing out the door when he came back in. As he passed her, she asked him, “Umm.. how do I… clean myself if I need to? I mean, down there?”

Once he understood, he pointed to a bucket in the latrine. “You will find Merresh husks in that bucket. Throw the used ones into the latrine.”

He sat down to resharpen his knife in the lamplight. The girl came back inside after a while. He noticed she was sniffling.

“It’s cold now,” she commented. “It was  so hot earlier, but I was shivering out there.”

“It becomes very cold at night here,” he commented. “We are high above the plains. The air is thin in this place. I will need to buy you a robe for the night-time, I think. Close the door and lower the latch. It will stay warm inside longer that way.”

She did so, and then crossed to a point across the room from him and sat cross-legged, a very unwomanly pose. He averted his eyes.

“I will need to get a more modest covering for your… hips, as well,” he noted.

“I’m no less covered than you,” she pointed out.

He sighed. “Women should have flaps to their loincloths, which hang down in front and back. Some wear coverings such as yours, but they add a cloth to tie around their hips, so they are less… inviting.” He frowned and added, “Do… women sit that way where you are from?”

She looked surprised. “What do you mean?”

He fixed his eyes on his knife, concentrating on his work. Finally seeing no alternative way to say it, he noted, “You hold your legs apart as if inviting me to mate. Some other men might take it so. A woman who is not a whore keeps her legs together.”

She looked down, then back up at him, slightly amused. “It bothers you?”

He sighed. “Would you do me the courtesy…”

She pressed her lips together and tipped her head, asking sweetly, “How should I sit, Master?”

Alarmed, he ordered, “Do not call another slave that! They punish such words!”

She paled in shock, perhaps a bit intimidated by his forceful response. After a moment, she softened, replying with contrite tones, “I’m very sorry. How should I sit?”

Softening his voice, he stated, “Anyway you wish that keeps your legs together.”

She wrapped her arms around her legs and put her chin on her knees. The lamplight reflected from a hint of tears glistening in her eyes.

“I think I am very, very far from home,”  she commented. “Can I ever go back?”

“I don’t know,” he answered. “Where is your home?”

She took a deep, shaking breath. “Indiana. Have you ever heard of Indiana?”

He shook his head. “Is it far? How long did it take to travel here?”

“I don’t know. I was spending a day at the beach, and then… I was out of it for a while. I don’t think this is even the same world as mine.”

He looked at her in mild surprise. He’d heard of new blood being brought in from the human homeworld, and her ‘Indiana’ must be there. Somehow, he’d expected a human from another world to look more… exotic. Other than her pale, baby-like skin, she could have been from his homeland.

She kept speaking. “But if this is another world, how is it that you speak my language?”

He managed not to laugh. Every newcomer made the same mistake. “Listen carefully as you speak. You will have difficulty at first, but you will hear it if you try.”

“What will I hear?”

“You are not speaking your own language, except when you try to say something for which you learned no word from the implant.”

She frowned and shook her head, puzzled.

“I know it’s hard to hear at first. The implant confuses you. I was unable to speak my native language to my fellow Gibrak for months after the implant. Your mind insists you are speaking your own tongue and that those around you do as well. We are in truth speaking the human version of the language of the Masters.”

She watched him, contemplating something, as he put the knife back in its sheath and put the sharpening tools away in one of his storage chests. He couldn’t imagine how many different questions a woman from an entirely different world might ask. She finally enlightened him on one of them. “They expect me to have your baby. Is that even possible? Are you really the same species as me?”

He pondered her confusion. “We’re both obviously human.”

She looked into his eyes. “No. You’re different. Your eyes aren’t human at all.”

Her claim perplexed him, until he realized aloud, “The Raas. You are seeing my Raas, not my eyes.”

She blinked and showed no sign of understanding

“My eyes,” he repeated, pointing at them. “They are not naked like yours.”

She frowned as she leaned forward to see closer. “Is it contacts or something?”

She’d used another word from her own language. He shrugged. “Most humans outside the enclaves of the Masters wear the Raas. Those who do not, and humans from within, must wear other protection for their eyes when they go outside. Human eyes must shelter from the sky of this world. The color and glare can drive a human with naked eyes mad.”

He stood and removed his knife sheath, putting it on the table. “I shall douse the lamp. You should go to the furs now, so you don’t stumble in the dark.”

She looked fearfully at the place he’d gestured. “Do we… both sleep there?”

“In this season, the nights get very cold. I only have two furs. One for the floor, and one to cover us. I promise I shall do nothing against your will. Please.”

She swallowed, stood, and took her place in the furs. Reclined for bed, her nubile body aroused manly thoughts in him again, which he carefully set aside lest she notice. He turned the lamp wick down, until it guttered out, and cautiously picked his way to the same spot.

In the dark, he heard a hushed sobbing. He said nothing, merely took his position and pulled the cover fur over her, positioning himself so he didn’t touch her.

“If it becomes too cold for you,” he said gently, “Do not fear huddling closer. I will understand that you do it for warmth and not other things.”

“Thank you,” came the timid reply.

In the dark, her breath still rasped with quiet tears for long after they both ought to have fallen asleep. He waited, knowing nothing else he could do.

Out of the darkness, her voice whispered, “This isn’t how I thought you would act, when I first saw you. You looked so… brutal.”

Her words cut deep. He answered as gently as he could, “I could see that you thought so. You were terrified of me.”

After a long silence, she spoke again. “It’s… getting cold. These furs aren’t big enough for both of us.”

“Come closer.”

She pulled in a breath, reached out to touch him lightly… but stayed where she was. “I don’t even know your name.”

“I am Bear,” he answered.

“Just… ‘Bear’? That’s it?”

“As a warrior, I had an honor name. I refuse to use it as a slave. I use my youthful name, instead.”

“Is it… the name of an animal? I hear it as one.”

“Yes. I imagine you hear the name of an animal from your world that resembles it. I say it in the Master’s language here. I used the Gibrak word in my homeland, until I received my honor name.”

“What was the Gibrak word?”

“Ahotse”

“I am Sabina, Ahotse.” She scooted in closer, and his arm automatically covered her, a habit formed during nights with a wife now dead for more than ten years. 

He felt her immediately stiffen, then relax when the simple protective gesture did not change into something more. She nestled her head into his shoulder, the rest of that enticing form fitting naturally to his. He forced himself not to think of the charms now pressed against his body. The eyes of his gods bore down on him, and the warrior’s oath drifted up from memory, but the words of his new bride… You looked so brutal… distressed him worst of all. 

In his veins flowed the blood of ten generations of warriors, of a line directly descended from the Old Kingdom, all of them honored and proud. How much had the years of slavery taken from him? Did none of his heritage show at all?

She had overcome that terrible first impression at least far enough to relax as he touched her, and he dared not betray that trust. The gods were playing their trickster games with glee today. They had delivered into his arms a woman whom he truly desired, but whom he feared to make any advance toward.

“I joy to hear my old name,” he admitted quietly, “But call me ‘Bear’.”

“Yes, Bear.”

At long last, the tears dampening his shoulder ceased to flow, and her breath found the peaceful rhythm of slumber. He allowed himself to sleep after that.

The heat had begun to sap the moisture from him. He would begin feeling it as fatigue soon, and prayed that the girl lose her will to flee before her body quit. Knowing Sabina as he had come to, she might very well have the mental strength to push herself too far.

He was already moving as fast as he dared. The only other effort he could add was prayer. In silent Gibrak he pleaded, Jesters of the heavens, I beg you to spare my wife. I beg you to agree that she has amused you long enough. I beg you to leave her fate in the hands of that god to whom she prays every morning.

Looking up into the raging orange sky, he wondered if either his gods or her god ever bothered to look through that hellish Hadreine overcast and see them. The living masses of aerial plant life gave relief from a sun that would otherwise render this world unlivable, but at the cost of its maddening color show.

He picked his way along the rocks again, certain he was covering the path he’d seen her on. He had not spotted her for some time now.

Did she have her goggles? Or had she lost them in the tailings piles where this chase began? He hadn’t been close enough at any point to be able to tell.

He did not know if a sense of obligation drove him, or of human concern, or if he indeed had come to love her as a husband. He knew she would spend her life out in these rocks, a very short span, if he did not catch her soon, and he could not tolerate the thought. Far below them, she might find water, the pools and trickles that ran the canyon floor between floods, but she would never make it to them before the Imps spotted her. Perhaps at night… if they lived that long.

Better to catch her. Better to take her back to the city, the very place she fled. Was he wrong to do it? She’d thought him a coward, for obeying the Masters. His warrior’s code forbade him from wasting his efforts on a useless fight. The king’s man guards his skills jealously as the possession of his lord. Death for his king in a worthy battle was the highest honor, but Death in a lost cause was mere waste of the king’s treasure. Was he wrong for failing to fight against the slavers and force his way out of captivity or die trying? Should he be helping her flee rather than seeking to stop her?

When the block manager escorted a Master to their door three evenings after she came to him, Sabina faded to the back wall of the hut in terror. Bear had to grip her arm far more strongly than he ever done before, in order to bring her out as it requested.

He apologized to it, hoping she had not angered the creature, but the Master thrummed, “It is of no importance. The slave merchant informed me that she required more and stronger than the usual applications of the restrainers. No doubt my appearance brings much memory of pain.”

She quaked in Bear’s grasp as he held her in place before him. The Master reached toward her neck and the trembling turn to stiffened terror, but it merely operated the lock and removed the collar. “She will continue to wear the restainers,” it declared, then abruptly left.

“Thank you, Lord,” he called out to it. Without looking back, the ambling creature raised a manipulator in wordless reply.

The block manager gave Bear a dark look before she turned her concerned eyes toward Sabina. “You are very lucky that you encountered a Master with a tolerant attitude, woman. Your behavior could easily have earned you punishment.”

She still trembled but she nodded meekly. The old woman shot him another look… Teach her better, those eyes said… before turning and leaving as well.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, before he said a word. She understood the issues. She simply still couldn’t control her fear.

Neighbors up and down the narrow lane watched them, possibly wondering if the newly leashless woman would now run. He humphed. “Let’s go back inside.”

He saw her looking at the control on the table as they returned to their meal, and he could guess her thoughts. He had worn restrainers for three long years, though, and had no reason to expect her to wear them for less.

Perhaps the departure of the leash unfettered her tongue as well, because Sabina, for once, spoke of her work with more than a few words when asked. He always saw her now and then during the day, so he knew she was working her share. That was an important detail, of course. Without the Masters’ stipend for children, she would bring no money to their house. They would have no more than what Bear had lived on alone unless she worked diligently.

Some new slave-girls did not understand that they must labor beyond the house, and equally, some new man-slaves did not understand their wives could not stay home to cook and clean, until hunger taught the lesson. It seemed Sabina came from a land where women worked outside the house as a matter of course, an unusual situation in most places but more similar to her life now than was the life most free women of this world knew.

Now that Sabina spoke of her day, however, he began to learn that her work-day did not go as smoothly as he thought. He hadn’t realized Tinin was in the same team as her. The girl had made many very obvious advances at him in the past. He understood women little, but he knew they could be vindictive. Had Tinin’s former designs on him become anger toward Sabina? The descriptions of her day with Tinin and the others sounded as if this might be so.

The previous nights had seen them busy until late with buying needful things or meeting certain people she must know. This was the first evening they had simply arrived from the mine and ate dinner at a normal hour. With an hour until sundown once they finished, he worked on his copying for the first time in her sight. She watched him in mystification for a while, then sat down closer to see what he was doing.

“Is that writing?” she asked, bemused.

He nodded as he worked. “It’s a religious text. I am making a new copy.”

After completing the last characters of the passage, he looked up to find she was staring at him in amazement. “What is it, Sabina?”

“You can read and write.” Not a question, but a statement of perplexed wonder.

He reminded himself not to be angered by her reaction. It was valid from one who knew nothing of the Gibrak. Few nomadic peoples in the world put a high value on literacy, but few nomadic peoples were a once great people  stubbornly refusing to lose their last vestiges of civilization after overzealous Masters drove them out of their cities.

“Most Gibrak can at least read and write simple prayers and messages. A worthy warrior is expected to have a full education. Otherwise he cannot follow the annals and treatises concerning military matters.”

“But you said this was… religious writing?” She studied it more closely.

He smiled at her puzzled study, looking so much as if she thought she might understand it. “Few in the City possess the skill to write the Southern script with a proper hand. Those who wish copies of Southern writings borrow and bring them to those few of us who do have that training. This is actually a Khattak book of prayers, but they use the same script, and I read their language well enough to copy it.”

She was shaking her head in wonderment. He sighed. “What is it?”

“I was so wrong about you when I first saw you.”

He smiled and returned to his work. She watched carefully as he worked, enough so that he stopped again in curiosity. “What is it?”

“I keep feeling as though I should be able to read what you’re writing. I don’t know why.”

“You couldn’t know the language, so it is unlikely,” he commented. After a few more characters, he stopped and frowned, as a thought occurred to him.

“Sabina, could you read and write in your own language?”

She looked surprised. “Of course!” Then she smiled apologetically. “That’s right. Most people here probably don’t read. Almost everyone is literate in my homeland. I was a teacher, there.”

“A teacher?” he responded in surprise. Someone so young, teaching?

She smiled proudly. He thought for a moment, then reached into the chest where he kept his scraps and pulled out a piece of waste parchment. He gave her the brush and told her, “Write something.”

She gave the brush a wry look. “This is a…  very different tool that we use, but I will try.”

She dipped the brush carefully, then put a few lines on the paper, which looked like gibberish to him. He thought it might be her own language, but then she stopped, staring at the parchment.

“What is it?”

“I’m… trying to write my name, but…” Tears began rolling down her cheeks as her hand began trembling.

He caught the hand and steadied it so she wouldn’t shake ink from it. “Calm down, Sabina. It’s the implant causing you trouble.”

She turned baffled, teary eyes to him. “But I can’t write anything! What have they done to me?”

He kept her hand trapped and spoke patiently. “Don’t try to write your name. It isn’t a word in this language, and the implant is still preventing you from remembering your own characters. Write something that is a normal word.”

She pressed her lips together, steeled her nerves and shakily wrote, Bear.

He smiled at it, and her. “My name.”

She took a deep, steadying breath, and nodded, smiling.

“Just as the implant teaches the spoken word by replacing your own language, it teaches the written word. But, it only works on those who already grasp reading and writing in their own language. It gave you the written words by replacing your own writing.”

He considered adding that a sabina was something for which the implant found no equivalent in the Master’s language, but it looked like she was already understood. Instead, he explained, “That’s why you felt you should recognize the Southern script. The characters were once the same as those now in your head, and they still bear many similarities.”

She experimented a bit more, writing Bear can read and write and other trivial statements in barely legible script.

He read them aloud, and she smiled again. 

“I have enough brushes. I will get a spare ink pot, and some inexpensive scroll cloth, so you can practice while I’m doing my copying.”

Her improving mood evaporated. “What good will it do me? I carry water for a living.”

He chuckled and she looked a little hurt. She’d expected sympathy, not laughter. He shook his head with a smile and explained, “When your hand is properly practiced, my wife, you will carry water no more. The supervisors always want for scribes. As you guessed, few of your fellow slaves read and write.”

His heart froze as he saw the Imp diving down into the rocks ahead. He still hadn’t found her yet, but clearly, the Imp had spotted something.

Its wing-beast rose back into the air with a roar and it crowed out in triumph. “Look this! Look this!”

In its hand, Bear could see a familiar cloth fluttering… the brown hip-wrap he had bought for Sabina.

The Imp sped back and forth, waving it like a flag, then spotted him and and grinned as it zoomed by.

“You think me stupid, yes? Me know what you do! You hunting too! Where prey? Where go?”

With relief, he realized it had merely found the hip-wrap, not the girl. She’d lost the garment somehow. Now, he hoped to convince the creature that no other slave walked in these rocks. “That’s mine, damn you! Give it to me!”

But the thing just snarled. “Funny! You wear girly-things? This girly-thing! Me think you trick me!”

With that, it wheeled the beast, almost close enough for him to jab the spear into the creature’s malevolent golden eyes, and hurled its javelin. Before he could react, the weapon pierced his left thigh and he stumbled into the rocks below.

As they required him to do every morning, he handed the control over to the overseer of the water-girls and bid his wife goodbye. After watching the exchange, Sabina gave him a slightly querulous smile and turned to go to her job. She still panicked slightly with each event that made the device came to her mind, but now at least she had begun to do it quietly, and with some confidence that she would be okay and he would be back for her. She’d much improved in this respect since her first day of work.

As she left the overseer’s tent, she pulled on her goggles and her wide-brimmed sun-hat, necessary protection for a girl without Raas and unused to the sun. She’d asked many questions early on, about ways to protect her skin from invisible things he didn’t understand, but she seemed to have found what she needed by consulting the block manager.

As he walked out as well, he watched her and the other young women troop off behind the slightly older young woman who led them. The overseer of water-girls was now great with child and therefore nearing the end of her days at the mine. Were he the superintendent, she would already have been home and a new boss would already be on the job.

Old Beak-nose clapped him on the back as the old man passed, declaring, “It would be good to be that young in my marriage once more, and pining after my wife as she left!”

Bear shook his head and followed the old man toward their work sections in the massive pit, giving him the appropriate chuckle as he added, “‘Course, that’d be because she was still worth pining over!” 

Bear answered him, “You have your memories and your grandchildren, Elder. The Sage of Three Rivers wrote, The elderly wife’s beauty is restored by the elderly husband’s fond memory.

Beak-nose snorted. “You Gibrak and your scratches on leather and your quotes and your Sages. No wonder there’s so few of you! When the sun goes down, all you do is fondle your books!”

He chuckled politely at the fellow’s wit, but the old man had another barb to deliver. “I’ll bet you spend all night inking pretty poems to your new wife instead of bedding her! How many nights have the two of you actually joined?”

His Gibrak indignation over the discourteous question fought with his embarrassment that the honest answer was still ‘None’, even after a full ten-day of marriage. He answered stiffly, “The wine of a woman is best savored singly and privately.”

The elder snorted, “Yeah, well we Torosen wait until the kids are asleep, too. That’s as ‘private’ as any man needs.”

“The Sage who wrote it intended his words to mean that for the sake of marital harmony, one does not discuss marital things with others,” Bear lectured. “Perhaps that isn’t obvious, once one translates it out of Gibrak.”

“Tell me, Bear. All these Sages… they’re all dead, yes?”

The last man granted the title had died over five hundred years in the past. With a puzzled glance, Bear nodded to Beak-nose, and the old man chuckled.

“Well, all their wisdom didn’t do them any good, then, did it?” Cackling at his own wisdom, Beak-nose turned off onto the path to his crew’s work area, waving a cheery goodbye to his bemused companion.

Bear continued to his own work area, greeted with the typical jeers of his raucous workers. Ever since his marriage, he had been ‘showing up late’ because of the need to drop her off. Not truly late, but he’d always been the first to arrive, before the need to wait on the water-girls each morning. He looked at the face they would be working, quickly assessing the progress on it. The night crew were nocturnal Fridians, with saucer-sized eyes and massive muscles, able to remove considerable weights of material, but prone to missing vital clues about the rock they worked. At the tailings, another human crew would be sorting through the material they’d removed overnight, using the color vision which their Fridian co-workers lacked to glean mistakenly discarded stones.

“Tatsu, Bonetooth,” he ordered, “Climb up and take a look at the grade. I think they bit too deeply into the bottom last night.”

The two youngest workers, both outer-circle rowdies full of energy, scrambled up the face. The slave crews had worked the great pit, one of the oldest active mines in the world, for a thousand years. It now descended five hundred man-heights to the working digs. As each level of the dig reached the edge of the pipe, the Masters would come in and erect their retaining walls of fantastic materials which could never collapse, but the lowest ten man-heights, where the work went on, descended to the bottom in concentric earthwork terraces, and rockfalls and slides posed deadly dangers here.

Tatsu and Bonetooth both carried instruments to check the inclination of the face. After a few measurements, Tatsu yelled down to him. “We’re working the top today, Boss!”

He grinned around to the groaning men. “You heard them. Get your tools and start climbing.”

As always, the work went easily until the sun climbed tall enough for its rays to reach their work area. Then, the bare stone heated up, the air baked, and the men dried out. Their sweat rolled off them, dripping onto the face below as they hung from ropes to drive their chisels.

Beak-nose once told him that in other parts of the world, where the Masters sought more common materials, they brought in fantastic machines that would do the work of a hundred men. They always weighed the difference in cost between transporting those machines and their replacement parts to the world versus simply using slaves who bred their own replacements. To mine granite or iron, they used machines in addition to slaves, but in search of gemstones, slaves made more sense by themselves. Normally he wouldn’t mind, since spotting the precious stones was surely a man’s job, not a machine’s, but in this section, where they hadn’t found gems in days, he would have appreciated a machine to get them quickly through the dead zone.

“Hey-o!” the call came from below, a girl’s voice alerting them that water was near. He looked down the path and saw Sabina in the approaching group, grinned and called out to his men to head down.

In the ten-day she had been in the mines, she’d never looked actually happy, but she’d at least appeared happy to see him when work brought them together. Today, though, after he traded chisels with the girl porting them to the sharpeners, he sat down to accept a drink from a very unhappy Sabina.

“What is it?” he asked, but she shook her head with a quick glance toward the girl next to her, a sign she didn’t wish to speak. She moved quickly to the next workers, then came back to collect his cup.

He kept it, so that she had to pause and wait. “Sabina…”

She glanced around and said, “The other girls are angry with me. They’ve heard that you asked the mine superintendent to give me a scribe job.”

He frowned. “Is it causing you trouble?”

She wouldn’t answer. Tinin had come near, and from Sabina’s eyes, the girl was the obvious reason for her silence.

“The Masters would be angry if your skills were left unused,” he said to her in stern tones, loud enough for Tinin and others to hear. “They do not tolerate such wastefulness.”

“Yes, Husband,” she said meekly, but also a little louder than necessary, as she bowed. She came back up with a twinkle of unspoken thanks in her eyes. He handed her his cup so she could get on with her job.

He’d hoped to see her again in the lunch break, but the girls who came by with the rolled up Carashas turned out to be a different team. The overseer of the water-girls usually made sure that the married girls got to see their husbands on lunch, but she couldn’t always make the schedule work out, so he didn’t think much about it until the girl who handed him his Carasha bent close and whispered, “You need to get to the superintendent quickly, Bear! Your wife is in danger!”

“What are you talking about?” he demanded.

“The overseer’s water has flowed. They carried her to the midwifery. Tinin will be overseer now, and has the controls.”

The girl’s earnest expression unsettled him, but he shook his head. “Tinin wouldn’t do anything foolish…”

“She kept your wife at the tent, because she spilled some water this morning. It was nothing, but she speaks as if it were a hundred portions wasted…”

He thanked her and found More-beer. “I must go see the superintendent. Do a grade measurement when they sound the horn, then work the face as you think best.”

He grabbed the water-bag from the girl carrying it, and took a long swig, then hurried to the overseers’ tents. He had three terraces to climb, which would take most of his lunch break. The second terrace climb was nearly below the tents, though, and a bone-chilling scream as he took that ramp told him not to bother with the trek down to the last ramp up. He tackled the face and climbed it directly, as if he were ten years younger and still the one stuck with the job of setting lines.

He saw a tailings-carrier ascending to the world above as he came over the top and ran to the tents. Zad-aran, the overseer of miners grabbed him as he reached the water-girls tent. “Your wife! She’s running!”

He looked into the tent and saw another woman… one of the scribes from the superintendent’s tent… bending over an unconscious Tinin. The girl still breathed, he saw with relief.

The scribe looked up at him. “I heard screaming. It went on far too long to be a proper punishment, so I came to investigate. It stopped before I reached the tent, but I saw a girl running the opposite way.”

Bear looked to his overseer. “You said it was my wife?”

“That’s who she had in here,” he answered. “I saw them going in, earlier. Tinin was very angry with her.”

“I must speak to the superintendent.”

Zad-aran pulled off the headset. “You’ve used this before, I think. Go after her and talk as you go. I will borrow hers.” He pointed at the unconscious Tinin.

Bear took the headset and ran in the direction the scribe had indicated, pulling it on as he ran. He jabbed the button.

A Master’s voice responded to the call. “The Mid-Day rest is upon us. The superintendent is not available.”

“This is urgent, Lord!” he pleaded. “I am a section-leader of miners. I am currently chasing after a very scared and confused girl who has been improperly punished. I need help to find her before she injures herself.”

As he scanned around, desperate to find her, the Master queried in his strange, thin voice, “Why does a mere section-leader have communications gear?”

“My overseer instructed me to use it. He is borrowing another’s gear to report in. He will confirm this. Please, Lord, I beg you for the eyes from above to help.”

He simply could find nowhere for her to be. As he waited for a response, he looked to the tailings piles, and inspected each of the hand-drawn carts for hauling tailings, and even looked over the side of the terrace, fearing to see her broken body below. To his relief, she was not down there, but still…

The voice of the superintendent came to him. “I am told by Zad-Aran that this is Bear. Explain your situation.”

“Lord, the wife you gave me has been punished most wrongly by an… inexperienced overseer.” He doubted the truth of what he would say next, but he saw no reason to make things worse. “It was Tinin’s first day as overseer. I imagine she was unfamiliar with the control, and made a mistake. A scribe told me the punishment was carried for far too long.”

“What has happened to your wife, Bear?”

“She ran, Lord. She panicked in her pain, hit the overseer with something and ran. I am trying to find her. Please, I beg you to use the eyes above to find her before she gets hurt in the mine.”

“They see only you, Bear,” the Master answered. “No female in your vicinity at all, even five hundred man-heights forward of you. Go back to the tent.”

“But, Lord…”

“Your obedience is desired, Bear…” the Master thrummed with a slight shade of warning. He nodded and trotted back quickly.

“The control has a homing feature,” the  Master explained. “You will find your wife’s control, and I will instruct you in how to initialize the feature.”

Back at the tent, he found Tinin sitting up, as two more women from the superintendent’s tent tended her and the scribe and Zad-aran looked on. She looked up at him and snarled, “Your bitch is going to pay for this!”

“Hush, fool!” the female scribe snapped. “Don’t make things worse for yourself!”

“The fancy bitch attacked me!” Tinin retorted. “All I did…”

“We all know what you did!” the scribe declared.

Bear put up his hand, pointing to the headset with meaning. “I have explained that Tinin is new to overseeing, and unfamiliar with the controls.”

Tinin was about to respond again when one of the two tending to her clapped a hand over her mouth. Bear continued, “I must have the control, Tinin. Where is it?”

She pulled the hand away from her mouth and grated, “The bitch hit me with it! She pulled it out of my hand and hit me with it!”

He looked to the table where the controls for two other girls with restrainers still lay, and realized the truth.

“Lord,” he told the Master on the headset, “I believe she has taken it with her.”

He walked back outside, into the glaring sunlight, as he waited for the answer. Finally, the Master declared, “This is very bad. We continue to look for a girl who appears in an unlikely place, but we see nothing unusual.”

Scanning around futilely, Bear searched his mind for any idea, any plan that didn’t involve a massive, work-stopping effort. Such an event would be very bad for Sabina. Possibly for himself as well.

As he thought, a motion caught his eye above him, a descending carrier returning from dumping its load of tailings… and he realized in horror where his wife must be.

“Lord! Is anyone above, other than the eyes? Anyone who can see if someone is in the tailings pile where the carrier just dumped?”

The master thrummed, “You believe she could have ridden it up?”

“I recall, when I first reached the tent, a carrier was ascending, Lord,” Bear explained, and added, “I can not imagine anywhere else she could have gone where we could not spot her.”

“Sadly, no living being is above at the moment. We are retraining the eyes into the tailings piles, but they cannot move closer to see better. You must tell the carrier operator to return you to where he dumped, so you can inspect in person.”

Soon, Bear was riding upward with a fearful heart. Surely, if she’d been in the carrier bed, she would have been injured or worse when it dumped her out with a hundred man-weights of spoil. Beside him, the operator, a Pordrun, carefully managed the levers that mysteriously directed the Masters’ machine through the air.

“I no see human-girl,” the Pordrun stated, his deep bass voice difficult to understand as it mixed with the drumming of the vehicle. “I dump, I return. No see. No hear.”

“She has to be up there,” he insisted. “The eyes, the workers, someone would have spotted her.”

“Crazy girl then. Ride in the dumper. Maybe sick head, better dead.”

He forcefully reminded himself that he needed the creature alive to operate the carrier, and kept his fists to himself. “When we get there, you stay until the superintendent says we go. You understand?”

“Big-talk slave speak to free Pordrun,”  the thing growled.

Bear bit off an angry retort and explained, “I am simply making sure I clearly communicated what the superintendent told me to tell you.”

“I understand too-many-fancy-word slave.”

His eyes seemed to be tricking him as they approached the pile, but his disbelief grew to astonishment as they drew closer. From near the top, where something had disturbed the symmetric pile, a clear path ran, of someone half-walking, half sliding down the steep face…

“You see?!” he pointed angrily, and turned to the Pordrun. “So there was nobody in your carrier?!”

The creature said nothing in return. Bear jabbed the button on the headset.

“I am still listening, Bear of Section Three. You spotted something?”

“A trail, Lord, descending and leaving the pile. She is headed… out.”

“Into the wastes.”

“Please, Lord, the slave hunters will surely kill her. May I go after her, Lord?”

A very long pause followed his request, as the carrier drifted to the top of the pile. Finally, the superintendent answered.

“Bear of Section Three, you are a trustee of the Company of Mines. If you should attempt to escape with your wife, we would not leave you to the slave hunters. We would seek you out ourselves, to make an example of you.”

His throat tightened as he nodded. “Lord, I know this well.”

A chime sounded, coming from his armband. “You are granted a traveling pass, for the purpose of catching your wife and returning her safely. We can be lenient in our punishment of her if you can return her quickly enough.”

“Thank you, Lord,” he answered and looked quickly around the carrier for a weapon. With relief, he saw the Pordrun kept a spear in his vehicle, doubtless to fend off attempted escapees. Bear grabbed it and leapt out of the carrier.

“Hey!” roared the Pordrun. “Damn you, human!”

“I have the superintendent’s permission!” he yelled as he scuttled down the tailings pile. “Return to the mine!”

The hazy grayness and the roar in his ears faded into the glaring orange sky and the sound of the girl’s voice. He couldn’t understand what she was saying… 

He groaned and shook his aching head, then felt for the headset.

It wasn’t on his head anymore. Had it come off when he fell?

“Hello? Please! Is there anybody listening to this thing? He’s hurt, he needs help!”

She was crouching next to him, holding his headset and trying to talk into it.

“Sabina…” he rasped.

She gasped and hunched over him, kissing him on the forehead. He felt a tear hit his nose. “Thank God, you’re awake. You’re hurt. How do I work this thing?”

“Button. Look for the button. It’s hard to push down, so it doesn’t trigger accidentally.”

She searched it with frantic eyes, turning it over in her hand, finally finding the thing and mashing it down. “Hello?”

“Let go!” he gasped.

She let go and said, “Hello? Please come help Bear. He’s badly hurt.”

He saw Imps wheeling and flying in their direction. They’d seen the movement. He looked around, saw more Imps from the other direction, saw the barbed head of the spear poking up from behind a rock. He struggled to sit up and retrieve it.

“Sabina! Get into the rocks!”

She ignored him. He had the spear now. Again she called, “Hello?”

“Sabina!” The lead Imp was perilously close. 

She jabbed the button again. “Hello? Bear’s hurt! Please help him!”

“Sabina, run!”

Instead, she whirled, imposing her body between him and the attacker. She probably never had time to see the javelin that struck her directly in the breastbone. The headset flew from her hand, out of reach, as she fell backward into his arms, her head striking his with a loud crack. She didn’t move after that.

The other group of Imps was approaching from behind. He snarled and raised his weapon for throwing, vowing to take out at least one. The spear had never been weighted for throwing, but if the beast was close enough…

A javelin struck him in the back as the spear flew. He remembered no more.

“Bear of Section Three,” the alien voice thrummed, and somehow, he grasped that a Master spoke to him rather than the Keeper of the Dead.

“Bear of Section Three, our healer of humans tells me you can hear me. You have done well.”

He finally identified this particular Master as the superintendent. “My… wife, Lord.”

“Has already been punished appropriately. It is finished and no longer of importance.”

Bear opened his eyes to see the Master ambling away. He drew in a shaking breath and winced against the pain within his skull.

“Bear…” came a gloriously beautiful voice from the other side of the bed. Tears came to his eyes as he turned his head to see her.

“Sabina,” he marveled at the vision.

“Damn you,” she said through smiling tears. “If you hadn’t been so kind to me, I’d have been long gone from here. I couldn’t leave you hurt like that.”

“You’d have been dead,” he corrected her. She shook her head sadly.

“I had survival training in the Army. I’d have made it.”

This time, every word had been understandable to him, yet he still had no idea what she meant. 

He shrugged. “At least this way, you’re alive. That’s all that matters.”

Blinking to clear the tears, he saw a bandage under her top, holding a dressing in place between her breasts. “Was it bad?”

“Penetrated a lung, missed the heart,” she said, smiling. “Your Masters have very good surgeons. I could sit up the very next day. They had to keep you unconscious for three days, though. A javelin hit you in the spine, but they say you will recover.”

She bit her lip, looked at him with sad eyes, and added, “I’m sorry.”

“They punished you.”

“It was… small. Not like what Tinin did to me. They said they were being lenient, because I came to your aid. I’m okay now.” She bent in closer and kissed his cheek gently, lovingly. He turned  his head slightly, and after a moment of hesitation, she met his lips.

Copyright © 2019 Eric Fretheim

All rights reserved worldwide. No part of this book may be reproduced or copied without the expressed written permission of the Author. 

This book is a work of fiction. Characters and events in this novel are the product of the author’s imagination. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

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