It was late when Sturn and Aleisha reached the compound. It was dark. They were teleported to just outside the main door.
From within the dome Aleisha heard group shouts, a mixture of audience consternation and glee. Some sort of entertainment was going on. Sturn took her inside, a grip on her arm as though she would run. Aleisha didn’t get a chance to tell him how stupid that was.
Sevi was in the middle of the room, center of attention and in charge of a situation. There was a man on the floor under one of her boots. He was on his back, panting hard, her foot on his chest holding him down.
“We’re playing, remember?” he puffed, offering a hopeful smile.
“I didn’t know that,” she replied pleasantly, eyes wide with mock innocence. She leaned forward, both forearms resting across her knee, pressing her weight down on him. In one hand she held a bamboo rod. “Felt real enough to me when you were stealing a feel of my butt.”
The words came jovially and he gave a laugh, but it gasped out of him and turned into a wheeze. “But you look so pretty when you’re bending over.”
The bamboo whacked sharply across his face. Bamboo cuts. It left a line of blood. The violence and sting caught him by surprise and took the fun out of the exchange. The audience flinched.
“That’s gotta hurt,” someone said. “You’d better apologize to her, Bret.”
“My ass,” he returned, angry now.
“You want your balls in a jar?” Sevi asked. She moved the rod down to stroke them through his jeans, and his remaining bravado disappeared.
“Right answer,” she informed him brightly.
Sturn walked over, dragging Aleisha behind him, and looked down at the man. “Bret, the woman frightens me, now apologize.”
Sevi gave a throaty chuckle, liking that. She kissed the fingers of her left hand and tossed the gesture outward at Sturn.
He returned a smile, turning away. “Let him live, Sevi.”
“Thank you, Sturn, but that decision is mine.” Her cool gaze was already back on her prey. “What’s that game you Terrans play when you have to hit the ball with a stick? Hockey, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry,” Bret said, suddenly meaning it. “Really, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“I know that. You’ll clean my boots for a week. My good black ones. Perfect shine or I’ll collect payment. It will be personal. It will hurt.”
She stepped off him, letting him up. The men radiated outwards, each one relieved it wasn’t him. Bret came up smarting, his face bleeding where she’d sliced him.
“Was it worth it?” his mate asked, grinning.
Stephen leaned out from his workstation at the back of the room and spoke sharply to them, fed up with the racket. “When you children have finished playing.”
“She fucking cut me,” Bret objected.
“What do you expect? You touched her.”
Sevi chuckled again. It sounded more mean.
“And you’ll lose pay, Sevi, if you ever do that without good cause.”
It was Sturn’s turn to chuckle, looking over his shoulder at her. Sevi met his gaze in surprise and mouthed a silent fuck you back at him with her usual sparkle.
Bret focused on the money, seeing gain ahead. “You mean, she does it again, I get her pay?”
“Oh sure,” Stephen shot back angrily. “Then every fucking idiot would want to take on Sevi.”
Sevi swung her attention back to Stephen, liking the thought. “I’m game.”
“Shut up. Sturn? Who the fuck is that?”
Aleisha made their number twenty-three, all up. Fourteen of the team were men. All fourteen were present, yet of the women, all but two were missing, although somehow Sevi didn’t count. So it was herself and one Terran woman, the rest of them the entire male compliment suddenly interested in who this stranger was.
Aleisha felt out of place. Coming in so late was wrong. Being with Sturn was wrong. His hand gripping her arm was wrong. Everything was wrong, and Aleisha didn’t know how to put it right.
Clearly most of the team had forgotten about her, any newcomer being inconsequential to their worldview unless they were spectacularly stunning to look at. Nearly all of them realized now, however, that she would have arrived with them when they landed in the city. That gave her a number of hours alone with Sturn to account for, which sparked their imagination exactly as Sturn had suggested it would.
The conversation in the room dwindled down to nothing. Eyes and thoughts focused quietly on the new pretty woman. Stephen looked her over and frowned. Not least of all because she was wearing something that was very familiar, a dusky red garment way too big for her, its sleeves rolled up at the cuffs.
“That’s my shirt,” he said flatly.
Did he have to say it? Yes, all right, it was obviously too big for her and unmistakably not hers, but did he have to say it?
“She needed something to wear,” Sturn responded.
“Bastard,” Aleisha said. She wrenched her arm from his grip, which hurt and would leave a bruise. “That’s not fair.”
“My shirt?” Stephen said to Sturn. “Didn’t you have any of your own?”
“Yes, but she looks nice in red.”
Stephen grunted disapproval. There were printouts piled across the desk and the monitor showed a link with Cenoth’s library. He had been busy and clearly had overlooked her arrival.
His words to her confirmed it. “Your name?”
Aleisha’s dislike sharpened. Her mouth opened, but Sturn got in an answer first.
“This is Aleisha. You forgot she was coming?”
“Thought she didn’t show.” And Charlie hadn’t mentioned it, being too shocked by the reported death. Stephen gazed accusingly at the accumulated printouts. “I wondered where you’d got to. Was she fun?”
“The bed caught fire.”
The lie left Aleisha gasping. She spun to face him furiously, while across the room Sevi chortled in delight. “You found another use for her. Good for you.”
“That’s not true!” Aleisha objected.
“The bed didn’t catch fire,” Sturn deadpanned at once, not making it any better.
She’d soon knock the smile off his face.
Ignoring the guffaws around her, she turned and glared at the man who was supposed to be in charge.
“Sturn tells me he owns you, Stephen. Is that right?”
Stephen’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. He looked at Sturn and responded amiably, if with heavy sarcasm. “Oh, thank you so much.”
Sturn returned a shrug.
So much for that idea, Aleisha fumed.
Stephen looked her over. “So she’s it, huh? There’s not much of her.”
“My new acquisition,” Sturn acknowledged. “A souvenir of my misspent years in the Terran Sector.”
Aleisha continued to frown at Stephen. “Are you really the bastard in charge of this sham?”
“Oh God.” Stephen gave the sour look to Sturn. “I don’t like her. Not sure if it’s on sight or on mouth. Do we have to go through this again? Last psychic you chose turned out to be nothing more than a trier and you threw her off the ship. At altitude.”
“It improved her focus.”
Stephen looked skeptical. “Did it really?”
“Briefly, I’m sure of it.”
Another murder? Aleisha glanced angrily at the men who snickered in the background. Sevi was smirking, too, for God’s sake, but she wasn’t Terran. How could these men think murder was funny? This bastard was killing people out in the open, no shame and no remorse, and they treated it as a game?
What was she missing, here?
But she wasn’t missing anything. He had told her. He was untouchable, unstoppable. He owned everybody. No one dared try. If they were not too disapproving, maybe they wouldn’t be targeted, was that it?
It was a fucking con he was pulling with them, but not one of them dared challenge it.
“And the one before that?” Stephen asked.
One before that? Aleisha couldn’t find her balance at all.
“You’re trying to scare her, now,” Sturn responded. “There wasn’t one before that. Anyway, Aleisha’s got some talent, she may prove useful.”
“Really?” Stephen was surprised. “You’ve been testing her?”
“I formally quit,” Aleisha announced. “That woman over there put a teleporter on me. This man assaulted me, ripped my shirt, threatened me with a knife. Stephen, I refuse to stay.”
“I’m not listening,” Stephen said, his gaze fixed on Sturn. “Why don’t you put her in holding until you leave?”
Holding? Aleisha hadn’t thought it possible, but she was freshly taken aback. The common and inaccurate vernacular for a person in holding was hyper-sleep. There was no sleep involved, of course, and there was nothing hyper about it. An item was merely teleported and not reassembled until called for. Cargo was stored in holding as were all supplies. If you had the energy reserves, you could cram an inordinate amount into a ship when there was almost no weight and no size to such packages, although people were not generally treated that way.
Stephen was suggesting she be put away for later.
Sturn had his own views on that. “I haven’t finished testing her, yet. Anyway, she’s entertaining.”
“I’m going to cause you so much trouble,” Aleisha promised Stephen.
“Thank you for telling me.” Stephen remained completely unthreatened. He looked around the room, found the person he wanted and called to her, “Kristi? Take Aleisha out of here, please.”
Kristi was already on her feet and heading over. “Sure. Aleisha, c’mon, I’ll fill you in on everything and show you where you sleep.”
“I’m not finished yet,” Aleisha retorted, refusing to be passively led away.
Stephen changed her mind for her, fixing her with his gaze. “It’s either Kristi or it’s Sevi. The choice is yours.”
* * *
“What do you want me to say? You’re the idiot who came here.”
“I saw them,” Aleisha protested. “Him, anyway. But it was too late. Why does Stephen put up with this? With them? With the killing?”
“He doesn’t have the choice,” Kristi told her, resigned to it.
Aleisha didn’t see it that way and was scathing in her reply. “Of course he does! He’s supposed to be the one in charge of this team.”
“He is. Of the team, just not of them. Listen, the history is that he went out there, too far along the Chiddran/Khekarian border. He was making a neat fortune flying Chiddran refugees out of danger zones, only he was taken by the Khekarians who rather frowned at the exercise. He was captured and he and his team faced execution for aiding the Chiddran.”
Aleisha was sitting on the edge of the bare mattress of one bed facing Kristi on the other. Raw emotion saw her leaning into the gap, feet firmly planted on the floor and elbows on thighs, while Kristi slouched back against the wall, both legs drawn up and crossed loosely on the bed.
Kristi’s story had Aleisha straighten up, surprised. “You were there?”
“No way. That was before my time, thank Christ. His ship was confiscated, his wealth, his passengers, everything. Sturn intervened. He gave him back his freedom, his team and his ship but not the cash or the passengers. And this is the price. The Terran Sector is where they wanted to be and Stephen’s occupation suited them. I guess they liked the life out at the fringes where the population is sparse and the laws are pretty loosely defined. They can do what they like out here.”
“So I’m beginning to understand. Why was Gail killed?”
“Gail had a temper. She was confrontational, aggressive. It’s sad that she died, but she was a trouble-maker and it wasn’t going to end any other way.”
“And the seer?”
“She wasn’t any good. She tried faking it.”
“What, and nobody cared?”
“We can’t afford to care, Aleisha. Anyway, she was new, we never got a chance to know her.”
“So we’re just nothing? Something Sturn can just get rid of if he disapproves?”
Kristi gave a shrug. “Well, yeah.”
“He told me he wants to go back to the Khekarian Core, that there are challenges there.”
“I don’t know anything about those. I hope you’re good at remote viewing or feeling, or whatever it’s called, because you’ll live. You’ll also be our salvation. If you’re what they want, they’ll go.”
“Oh great, why not just everyone lend a hand!”
“Sorry, kid, but you put yourself in this mess when you filled out that bloody application form the way you did.”
“I thought I was on a quest. I felt drawn here, I still do, but not for them.”
Kristi shrugged that off. It clearly made no difference to her. “That’s one you’re going to have to work out for yourself.”
* * *
Her phone was useless. That didn’t make sense. Aleisha stared at it, then switched it off and threw the thing back into her bag. They weren’t that far from the city, but she wasn’t picking up a signal. She wondered if the teleporter somehow blocked it.
Aleisha changed into a t-shirt and climbed into bed. The mattress was thin, the pillow was emaciated, the sheets and blankets threadbare. She was cold and uncomfortable, yet not mindful of it. Her thoughts were elsewhere.
The biggest restriction hampering her escape was the teleporter. That seemed so ridiculous! She had always associated teleportation with freedom, quick and easy transport from one location to another. Put a lock on it and suddenly that freedom can be in the hands of someone else. She was sure whoever first thought of such a thing meant it as a safety feature so that a person wouldn’t lose it or have their transport stolen, but didn’t anyone think of what the negatives might be?
Of course they did. The Baddies worked it out in a flash. Bastards.
Aleisha didn’t know what to do about that. She didn’t even know what it all actually meant. Did teleport activate if she got outside a certain range? Or did someone have to miss her from the group and put in the command to bring her back? They could certainly monitor her whereabouts through the damn thing, so it was an efficient spy as well as a tether.
Aleisha had to get rid of it. No way was she going to be made to stay in the team against her will. No way was she going to let any Khekarian take her out of the Terran Sector. A stupid bit of technology was not going to steal away her freedom.
Charlie would know how to remove it. Probably. He would certainly help her. She thought. Perhaps he would even get her away to someplace Sturn or Sevi wouldn’t think of looking. Maybe.
She could try right now. Just grab her bags and head on back into Cenoth, but fifteen miles was a long way to walk, the trek made more daunting for being the middle of the night on an alien planet with heaven knows what kind of creatures out there. How long would a fifteen mile walk take? Two hours? Four? Six? She simply didn’t know, she’d never done it. She didn’t know how to hotwire a vehicle either, which was a pity, she thought sarcastically, because asking for an ignition card would be an over the top giveaway.
She had to get to Charlie and have him deal with the teleporter. It was also important that Sevi and Sturn didn’t know what she was up to. There were other restrictions they could hit her with, the worst of them being teleported into holding, as Stephen had so horribly suggested. She supposed she ought to thank him, he actually gave her valuable information. Now she knew she had to be careful and why. It wouldn’t do to force the Khekarians to make the decision that she was too much trouble before any of her trouble could become effective.
She only wished she knew a higher level of trouble to dig out for them. On a scale of one to ten, she was probably somewhere around minus three. Don’t be such a moth, one of her aunts would admonish her whenever she was being unduly childish, All flap and no straight direction. A flitter-bug. Think straight, aim straight, be a wasp.
Aleisha wished she was a wasp. But she wasn’t. She was a stupid little moth caught in what was going to become a very ugly web.
She frowned, wondering where that realization popped from. She hoped that wasn’t one of her insights.
They would be leaving the city soon. Stephen didn’t like to hang around. Kristi said they would be out in the wilderness again in a day or two. The team had to pick up a line of semitrailers for the next haul, right? They would be going to Charlie’s office, exactly where Aleisha needed to go. It might be best to pretend compliance and to wait until she could slip away at the city, right under their noses. If all went well, she could get the teleporter off and escape before they knew it.
Aleisha wasn’t completely happy with her plan, the big variable being Charlie himself and what he could or couldn’t do, how quickly he could assimilate her problem and how supportive he might be in her decision to quit the team this early, but Charlie’s help was all she had to work with. This wasn’t a regular team anymore, this was a couple of Khekarians with a totally different game plan for her. He had to understand.
Unexpectedly something landed on her, jarring her with fear. Something big. Something man-sized. Before she could react, a forceful swirl of energy swept over her and grabbed her up with hands and drew her away. The room disappeared, ripped away. Not up or down, just away in a rapid stream.
She gave a cry. Those hands were still on her, but now she was in complete darkness and standing upright. Not understanding any of it. She trembled with apprehension.
One hand let go, one remained. The remaining grip was secure on her forearm and she test-struggled against it, although not too violently, fearful of retaliation. She could feel long fingers pressing into her flesh.
Was it Sevi? Could Khekarians see in the dark? Why was it so dark? Zumaridi had three small moons, two of them were waxing, the third was in its dark phase and would rise with the sun. The two that were up had shown through her window and gave enough light for her to see the bare floor and the door, but now she could see nothing.
There was other strangeness. Aleisha was upright but not actually standing on anything. There was no floor beneath her feet.
“What’s happening?” she whispered, her breath rasping. “I can’t see.”
That changed immediately. Illumination came very gently from all around, seemingly from no source.
It revealed a terrifying sight. Another jolt of fear hit, making her heart pound and her breath suck in. The face was right there, close up and alien, those expressive russet eyes with their narrow slits for pupils looking deeply into her own.
He looked so like a hunter, a dangerous animal. Aleisha pulled back, her expression pleading.
“Oh God, please don’t hurt me.”
A frown came into his eyes.
Aleisha trembled more violently, knowing he couldn’t understand her, knowing there could be no communication.
She was wrong.
Will not hurt.
The words came into her head, yet were not her own. There was no feeling to them, no emotion and his mouth did not move, but those simple words gave Aleisha a sweep of relief.
If they could communicate, they could understand each other. If they could understand each other, they could be friends. Or maybe not. At least there was potential.
He moved then, revealing that he, too, was not connected with any floor. He didn’t step, he flowed, closing in on her in a spiral, circling her, his grip shifting from arm to shoulder to other arm. He continued to frown. She stared back, twisting this way and that to keep him in sight.
His focus was so intense. Serious. Then Aleisha wondered how an alien species could share the same expression as a Terran, that maybe what she was seeing didn’t mean what she thought it did. Then she thought of the Chiddran who smiled as readily at Terrans did, and she thought of the animal kingdom, at how dogs smiled, of how…
His jaw jutted forward. Am not dog.
So he could read thoughts and not just plant them. Aleisha felt flustered. “Of course not,” she said aloud. “I’m sorry.”
She didn’t have to respond verbally, he was a telepath, but it was habit, it was what she was used to.
Aleisha dared an outward glance but there was nothing to focus on beyond this man-animal. She was in another place, an in-between world. White fog seemed trying to take shape all around her.
This would be the astral, she decided. Plane of illusions, although illusion wasn’t the same thing as not real. Whatever you saw here might not be what it looked like. Or it might be. The thing is, it would be something and that something might come from within your own mind or it might not. If not, it might have good intention or might not have good intention at all.
Aleisha blinked nervously, not sure she understood. “Um. Terran.”
She wished his stare wasn’t so aggressive.
Different from Terran. You are Walker of Dimensions. One of us.
“No. I’m really not.”
No answer to that. He gave a blink of his own. Aleisha thought that was the first time and felt relieved again. Thain tilted his head, again not understanding her. The frown didn’t let up, but he blinked again.
“That’s better,” Aleisha said, attempting a smile. “Your stare is very aggressive.”
Not aggressive. Confusion. A strange animal of the solid kind, entering our world. You are anomaly. Yet you and another go in the elsewhere. Bigger anomaly!
She shook her head. Go in the elsewhere?
Disappear in the other dimension. It is like the opposite of us, yet the same as us.
That lost her. The words came in her head but did not flow as communication might Terran to Terran. It was inexact, slightly disjointed. She thought she’d try a question of her own.
“This isn’t a dream, is it?”
That frown didn’t let up at all. Then Thain melted away, color and form. She thought he was leaving her trapped here and fear jolted her, but it was just a shift in focus. His image strengthened once more, becoming clear and more solid.
Thain could have used a full soul-to-soul merge and inundated her with inner questions, communication then would have been exact and, at the same time, hidden from her. He didn’t because he wanted to learn what her intentions were towards his people. He wanted her to see him and know he was questioning her.
His stare lingered. He was drawing meaning from her, direct through his touch. She could now sense it.
You have come to hunt. You alone of your kind can see into our place of being. What are you to do this? Then transitioned to elsewhere place. Transitioned! Not my dimension. Not your dimension. Another dimension! Where is this place?
Aleisha gave a shake of her head, frowning too. “What place?”
Not yours. Not mine. Where is this?
“I don’t…” Realization swept over her. “You mean when I teleported? Yes? When I disappeared? To the ship.”
What is ship? Is it place invisible?
“No, just a long way away.” She began to relax. It took some effort.
You need to be invisible for place?
What is ship?
“Like a transporter. A big vehicle. You know vehicle?”
People moving thing?
“Yes. It’s special, though. It travels into space. Between planets.”
“The ground. All of it.”
She realized that didn’t do it justice but he seemed to draw meaning.
Back where you came?
You travelled back where you came?
“No, I just saw the ship.” She didn’t know why he should be interested in it.
In the invisible you have many movements?
“I don’t know what you mean by that. If you mean during teleport, no. Teleport just takes you from one place to another. No one goes invisible, they just get teleported. Transported. Moved.”
You see my world when you are in the teleported?
“Don’t see anything. Look, I don’t understand what this is about. Are we in the astral? It’s not real, is it?”
Yes, not real. Sphere of illusion wrapped around you in etheric plane. My world where you are blind.
Could not see, yes? In presence cannot see, in thought-perception can see everything! Difference between eye and mind.
Aleisha huffed out breath in frustration. “I wish I knew what you were talking about. Look, I’m not going to run, you know. I’ve got nowhere to go. Stop gripping me.”
Contact permits the exchange of understanding. You people are tumbled in your thinking and do not hear. I can direct thought to gain answer, but touch allows a merge with the animal.
“Merge with ‘the animal’? Great. Thank you so much.”
The sarcasm initiated a pause.
I refer to the flesh. This offends?
“Everything offends at the moment, what do you care? Can you get this off me?” She showed him the bracelet on her right wrist.
He looked at it, surprised she should ask.
“It’s locked on, okay? I don’t want it! It’s the teleporter that takes me to the ship. Do you want it? Can you remove it?”
Not of the physical here, he answered.
Of course not. Back there, in the physical plane, her body would be lying abandoned, the teleporter locked in place around her wrist. She was asking him to remove an illusion of what was elsewhere.
She sighed again, disheartened. “Then you can just take ‘the animal’ back. You’re not helping me any.”
Must answer question. You see me when your kind cannot. You know of my presence even from far away. Your dominant ones look for my kind to capture but they cannot see me. They brought you here for your skill as Dimension Walker to use against our talent for the invisible to you.
“I don’t think so. I don’t know. When I saw you, I thought you were a ghost.”
Thain sifted through all the meanings of the word.
Yes. We are like a ghost-people. Your species cannot see us unless we cross into your world. Yet they bring you here, who can look into our domain and can reach us. You are a danger. You must be assessed. You are here to hunt.
“I’m not here to hunt,” she assured him. “I wouldn’t, even if they asked me to. By ‘dominant ones’, you mean Stephen and Sturn and Sevi? As far as I know, they do not know of you. Sturn wants to take me away, far away from here for his own use. Across the sky, across the galaxy. I don’t want to go. As for any plan of theirs, I know nothing of their interest in your kind. I don’t see how they can capture you, in any case.”
Another lengthy silence. His grip held firm on her arm, and she wondered about his energy merging with hers. How much did he understand? How much could he perceive? How much could he help her?
Many things of your people come strangely. What limits you is not known. You are full of surprises, your kind. We could not be perceived, yet then you see us. Different from Terran. You are Dimension Walker. One of our talent.
“Not really. I hear your words, I get the meaning of the words, but the whole doesn’t give me a clear meaning. I don’t walk in other dimensions.”
Mind-venture. Walking with other parts not physical dense. You are a threat to us. You are anomaly. I will watch and gain understanding.
“Thank you, I’ll remember that.”
No. You have no power here. Not even to remember. You will not know of this. Will forget.
Aleisha doubted that. She didn’t have to voice it, he was hearing her.
Is done. When I cross into your world, only then do you have access to remember. In my world, this is my control. A dream removed.
Abruptly he let her go.
Aleisha dropped back into blackness. She actually felt the memory pull away, unraveling, until she didn’t know what was lost, then didn’t know anything had been lost at all.