Chapter 1

 

Taymar jolted upright at the sound of the door sliding open, cracking her head against the ceiling. As if her headache wasn’t already bad enough. And how had she managed to drift off to sleep anyhow? Who sleeps on an enemy ship? Well, maybe the Shreet weren’t really her enemy. Or were they? Who knew? She cupped her hand over the growing lump and rolled over to slide off the bunk. She remembered too late she was on top of a three-tiered bunk bed and her miscalculation of the distance landed her on her backside.

“Dicci!” she swore, “That hurt.”

Embarrassed, Taymar scrambled to her feet and finally managed to stare up into Kellin’s expressionless face as he said, “We have arrived.”

He stood just inside the door but given his large stature and the size of the room, Kellin took up more than his fair share of it. He wore his Alliance uniform; a black utility vest loaded with gadgets pulled over a gray shirt with matching pants. It looked ridiculous on him. He was a huge creature covered in a thin layer of gray fur just a little lighter than his clothing. He had claws for fingers, and fangs that poked down over his lower lip when he spoke.

“Arrived where? And don’t you people give some warning or something before you enter a room?”

Kellin folded his arms and stared at her before speaking. His tone was as neutral as his expression, but he always sounded like he was growling. Maybe it was the fangs. “If you were caught by surprise at my entry, the fault is yours, not mine. We have arrived at the Seed. Are you ready?”

“The Seed? I thought we were going to the Shreet space station.”

“Your people call it a station. The Shreet call it the Seed. Their home planet is called the Root, so, by extension, this is the Seed since it will be the launching point of the Shreet civilization on this side of the flux. The brae, the commander of the Seed is waiting to speak with you, so we must hurry.”

“They are not my people. They are the Alliance. My people are the Arleles and they don’t call it anything because they don’t even know it exists. Either way, even though it makes sense when you put it like that, it still seems like a weird name for a communication station. Who names places after plant parts?” Taymar picked one of her shoes up off the floor and pulled it on, but the other shoe was nowhere to be seen. “But I guess people with braids of skin coming out of their heads can be as weird as they want. I can’t find my other shoe.”

“It is on the bunk where you were sleeping.”

“I wasn’t sleeping,” she said with a scowl. She climbed up high enough to spot the shoe and used her telekinesis to teke it down. “I was resting, and why in three moons would anyone have three-tiered beds?”

“You are not very pleasant when you awaken are you? This is a small ship and it must hold a lot of people. Are you ready?”

“I guess so,” she said, pulling on her other shoe with a series of hops. “I still don’t get why we’re here in the first place. Why did you do that?”

“Do what?” He swiped open the door and indicated with his hand that she should proceed him into the hallway.

Taymar ignored him. “Bring me here? You risked everything to get me away from Captain Sean. To bring me here to the sta … the Seed. I don’t understand why. What do you want from me?”

“I want you to leave this room, so we can board the Seed before I expire.”

“I wasn’t aware of your advanced years,” Taymar said, still not budging. “What do you, or the Shreet or the brae or whoever, want from me? What makes me so important?”

“That isn’t for me to say. You can ask your questions of the brae once we get there. He is eager to meet you as is our informant.”

“Informant? What informant?”

“That is why I am here. To take you to meet him. If we ever manage to leave this doorway.” Kellin pointed to the open door. “That way.”

“Is he from Drani?”

“He would be of little use as an informant if he were not. Can we go now?”

“Sure,” Taymar said, stepping through the door. “The brae is a Shreet?”

“He is the Shreet who commands the Seed.”

“Oh. Like Captain Sean,” she said, referring to the Captain of the Alliance ship she had only recently fled.

“No,” Kellin said, swiping the door closed behind him and waving a deadly clawed hand indicating the direction she should go. “That way. Captain Sean McCauffer commanded one ship, the Regal. YittBrae commands an entire fleet. Meeting him is a great honor few people have experienced.”

“You didn’t like Captain Sean?” she asked.

“He is an excellent leader. I would like him more if his loyalties weren’t misplaced.”

“He would say the same about you. About your loyalties anyway. How do you know yours are right and his are wrong?”

“No war is waged in defense of wrong.”

The door tried to open again as Taymar stared up at him in confusion. She arched a brow inviting him to continue.

He stepped away from the door and tugged on his shirt where it was obviously too tight. “Everyone believes themselves to be in the right. I have chosen the Shreet because I believe they will win. The Shreet are the stronger force. Sean McCauffer should have seen that and chosen differently. Now, we really must go.”

“Okay,” Taymar said, finally turning and heading off in the direction Kellin indicated. “Great honor. Big important person. Don’t mess him up. Got it.”

Kellin fell in behind her. “I believe you meant to say don’t mess it up.”

“Right. Don’t mess it up. I’ll do my best, but I can’t make any promises. I do tend to excel at messing things up. I’m good at messing people up as well.”

He remained silent a beat too long. For a moment, Taymar wondered if maybe she had pushed him too far. But that was how she operated, so she wasn’t likely to change now. Besides, he had revealed himself as a Shreet spy on an Alliance ship, killed a high ranking Dran official and nearly been killed himself just to get her to this meeting. He wasn’t likely to toss her out an airlock now. That’s what she told herself anyway. And she wasn’t walking onto this Seed of his feeling like a victim.

When Kellin spoke, he was closer behind her than she realized. “I hope you understand how much your future depends on the outcome of this meeting.”

Taymar kept her pace steady but reached out telepathically to access his thoughts as she walked. “That’s so weird. Maybe you’re a little telepathic after all, because I was just thinking the exact same thing.”

Kellin’s deep laugh, surprising in both its rarity and its volume, rumbled through the hallway as he pushed past her and took the lead.

She hadn’t meant it as a joke.

As they walked, Taymar didn’t bother trying to track the turns and twists. No point since she was about to leave the ship anyhow. What she did note was its similarities to Captain Sean’s Regal. Panels of buttons and scanners lit up as they approached and then winked out after they passed. Some of them seemed to come with instructions, but she couldn’t even figure out where one letter started, and another stopped in the Shreet writing. It all looked like someone had taken a knife and carved a bunch of random scratches into the wall.

The air was heavy and damp. It reminded her of the first Shreet ship she had been on. Wherever the Shreet were from, their world must be wet, but maintaining this level of humidity in space couldn’t be easy on the equipment and computers. Based on her experiences on the Regal, water was almost as precious as the brakeal fuel crystals the two sides were constantly fighting over.

The passages were narrower than those in the Regal and Shreet crewmen had to hug the wall to allow Kellin to pass. Taymar guessed that his rank among these Shreet must be high or he would be the one hugging the wall. Then again, if he came walking toward her looking as menacing as he did, she would probably give way to him as well. She did, however, notice that the Shreet weren’t in a hurry to go about their business. They watched her as she passed with the same curiosity that she felt as she stared at them.

She had seen some of the Shreet before, but not in person. Well, not counting the ones who had attacked her in Nevvis’s bedroom, but to be fair, she hadn’t really seen much of them either. She had been too busy trying not to get abducted and failing as it turned out. She had made them pay for that mistake though by sneaking into their minds and stealing their ship.

Taymar paused to stare back at two Shreet who had stopped to watch her pass. She had to give them credit for not rushing off as if they hadn’t just been gawking. One was bluish, the other more of a light, dirty, orange. Their huge tear shaped eyes focused on Taymar unblinking, except for a barely visible membrane that slid occasionally across the black surface. Two vertical slits that she assumed to be the Shreet version of a nose, opened and closed in a steady rhythm, but the little protrusions on either side of their chins twitched and jerked as if they were looking for something.  Both of them had the weird braids that started out as skin but transitioned into silky white hair. The orange one’s braids were half skin and half hair, whereas the Blue one had so little skin it barely had time to fade to white before turning into hair.

The orange one elbowed the blue one, and they both headed off down the hallway. Taymar watched them for a moment longer, admiring their wide flat feet with the single claw hooking out over each heel. They moved in near silence and once again, she wished she had a claw like that on the back of her leg. Not that it was terribly functional, but it looked amazing.

Once the Shreet disappeared around the corner, Taymar turned and rushed in the opposite direction to catch up with Kellin. He pretended not to notice that she’d strayed, but Taymar knew better. A guy like Kellin noticed everything.

“Why do the Shreet have claws on the back of their ankles?” she asked once she had closed the gap.

He shrugged. “Perhaps the real question should be why don’t you have claws on your legs?”

“You don’t have a claw either,” she pointed out, falling in behind to allow another Shreet to pass.

Kellin’s only answer was another shrug, so Taymar tried again. “What are those little skin whiskers on their chins?”

“I think they function like your nose.”

“I thought the slits were their nose.”

Kellin paused to read some scratches on the wall and then turned down another corridor. “The slits are for breathing. The skin whiskers as you call them are for smelling. The Shreet can detect more than scents. They can smell fear, anger, even lies.” He stopped at an intersection of passageways and frowned.

“Did you get us lost?” Taymar asked.

He turned and glared at her. The man had an impressive frown.

“I can smell fear and anger. That’s no big deal. I don’t believe you though.”

One furry eyebrow raised.

“I don’t think they can smell a lie.”

“Lie to the brae and you will find out.” He stepped around her and swiped his hand over a control panel. Rows of colored dots lit up a square in the wall.

“Arleles don’t lie.”

“And now I am the one who doesn’t believe you.”

“It’s true.” She tried to sort out what buttons Kellin was pushing, but none of it made any sense to her. “I live on a planet controlled by telepaths. What’s the point in lying? People on Drani just don’t lie.”

Kellin glanced down one of the hallways and then back at the map that had replaced the colored buttons on the wall.

“I hadn’t considered that,” he said, opting for the passage on the left.

“Your people must be good at lying. You were a spy on an Alliance ship after all and nobody knew.”

“They were starting to figure it out.”

“Still, you must have been good at it for a long time,” Taymar said, a little envious of his ability to deceive. “What are your people called, anyway? You aren’t a Shreet.”

One more turn led them to a massive archway split by partially opened metal doors whose sheer size made her think they weren’t opened often. Kellin paused at the opening and waited while a ray of blue light traveled the length of his body. Taymar wanted to jump back when the light turned on her, but she didn’t want to let Kellin see her fear. When the light finished scanning them, Kellin walked through the doors.

“I am of the Branite people,” he said. “And what we are good at is surviving. Come.”

Kellin led her into a large tube that was pressed up against the archway. When Taymar glanced back, she realized that the pitted scratched surface showing on the inside of the archway was the outer surface of the ship. Somehow, being on the outside of a spaceship, even a docked one, was completely unnerving for her.

As they walked through the connecting conduit, they had to step aside to make way for carts that were zipping to and from the ship. Whether they were loading or unloading Taymar couldn’t guess. When the tube finally let out onto an expansive docking area, she stopped and stared.

The space station was impressive.

Taymar turned a slow circle taking in the immense size of the area. She had never been in an enclosed space so massive before. Entire ships that looked to be capable of holding thousands of people were docked along various platforms. The sheer volume of empty space was overwhelming. The walls linked together like puzzle pieces all the way up, the sides curving slightly as they changed from wall to ceiling. Taymar put her head back so she could follow the linked pieces and froze when she saw the yawning black opening overhead leading out to the void of space. Adrenaline pulsed through her.

“Why aren’t we being sucked out of that hole?” she asked trying to sound casual.

Kellin looked up and gave the flash of fangs that passed as his smile. “It is amazing is it not? That opening is completely sealed. Watch.” He pointed a clawed finger at a small ship drifting toward the massive gap. As the craft slid through the space gate, a bubble of light formed around the vessel, fitting it like a living gel. The second skin coated the ship until the very last bit had cleared the opening. Once the ship was through, the bubble closed, sealing the gate, at which point it disappeared. Or so it seemed.

Taymar inhaled the scent of metal and relished the fact that there was breathable air. It really was amazing. Workers and machines moved around the floor in organized chaos, sometimes passing within a finger’s length of one another but managing somehow to avoid colliding. Rows of shuttles and small ships lined one wall as far as she could see. Some looked to be in various states of repair, but others sat pointed toward the immense opening, staged neatly for a fast and efficient launch, which would be convenient when she was ready to sneak out in one of them.

Taymar pointed to a boxy ship that looked like the shuttle she had used to make her escape from the Alliance. “Is that one of Captain Sean’s shuttles?”

“It is an Alliance shuttle,” Kellin said, heading toward a waiting transport craft. “It was an Alliance shuttle. It belongs to the Shreet now.”

“They stole it? They stole all of these?” Taymar eyed the contraption that was to be their ride with open suspicion. It looked like a large oval bowl sitting on the ground with two rows of seats at the front and no visible controls. “What is that?”

“Get in. We acquired those ships. Just like you acquired the one you used to escape the first Shreet ship you were on.” Kellin didn’t bother with a door. He just climbed over the edge, so Taymar followed and hopped into the row behind him.

“I didn’t steal an Alliance shuttle when I escaped the first time. I just borrowed it.”

“Did you give it back?”

Taymar shrugged and assessed their blue-skinned driver. His skin was a little darker than the one she had seen on the ship, but he had similar braids that were mostly composed of hair. More importantly, he seemed nervous. He didn’t even glance back at them. She couldn’t blame him one bit. If she were about to fly an oversized bathtub in a huge room that had a giant door leading out into space, she wouldn’t be looking around either. “It’s on my to-do list. Besides, I would have returned it if I could have, but I was trying to do the escape thing, so it wouldn’t have been a smart choice at the time.”

“You stole it.”

To Taymar’s surprise, the bowl lifted effortlessly off the ground and zipped forward without so much as a jerk. Just to be safe, though, she slid over to the center of the bench.

The Shreet driver wove his tub in and out between the cargo carts and crew members with practiced ease and alarming speed. At one point, a group of the tiny Yarnit people like the ones she had seen on the Regal, scattered to avoid being leveled by the craft. Taymar bristled at the Shreet’s complete lack of concern over his close call as he buzzed past them.

They eventually left the cargo area and slowed to a crawl before the Shreet set the tub down without so much as a bump, directly in front of what Taymar assumed was a deck-shuttle similar to the tiny rooms on the Regal that zipped people from one end or level to another. Kellin spoke in the strange clicking language to their driver as he hopped over the edge of the vessel. The Shreet only nodded, but the skin at the base of his braids flashed almost as white as his hair just before he maneuvered the vessel off the ground and headed back toward the cargo area.

With a couple of taps Kellin managed to activate the sensor, and the door slid open. Apparently, every deck-shuttle in the universe looked exactly the same. Although this one was larger than most of the ones Taymar had seen so far, probably so it could transport bulky cargo. It still had the obligatory bench seating against the walls on three sides. And just like every other time she had been in a conveyor shuttle of any kind, no one in it made any move to sit. One thing about this enclosure was different though.

“Is this fur?” she asked, running her fingers through the thick mat of fuzz on the walls.

“Moss,” Kellin said. “The Shreet world is very humid. They try to mimic it here on the station as naturally as possible.”

Either the shuttle was carrying them to another planet, or it wasn’t moving at all because she and Kellin just stood in the empty chamber staring at the moss until the silence got the better of her.

“I think you should know I’m not going to just do whatever this YittBrae wants. I may not be here by choice, but I’m not a slave.” she said. “And I’m not afraid to die either, so there’s no point in threatening me.”

Kellin furled his brow. “You didn’t have to leave the Regal with me. You could have stayed.”

“Except for the part where you killed Nevvis. But I get your point.” She brushed the moss back and forth. Its soft mat tickled her palm reminding her of the moss-covered trees back on Drani. She would die before she let anyone take her there again. “And I hope you get mine. I’m here because it was the best choice that I had at the time, but that doesn’t mean I’m agreeing to help anyone. Not the Shreet or the Alliance or anyone else.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

They stood in silence, Kellin’s apparent casual attitude grinding at her psyche. Why was he so calm? But the answer was obvious enough. He knew what he was walking into while she had no idea. Her pulse started thumping again as she pushed back the reality of her situation and tried not to focus on it. She was truly trapped, and she had walked into it of her own accord. Not that the alternative of going back to Drani had been much of a choice. But still.

When the shuttle beeped its impending arrival, Taymar jerked her hand away from the mossy wall and spun to face the doors as they slid open to reveal a much different space than the cargo area they had left. The hallways were still utilitarian, but much wider and often interrupted by alcoves with atriums full of miniature plants.

“That took forever. I thought the deck-shuttle broke,” Taymar said, nearly running into Kellin as he paused to activate a panel on the wall. “This place is amazing. Not that I’m complaining, but what’s with all the plants?”

Kellin looked around as if just noticing that the atriums were there. “We are very close to the cargo bay. Otherwise we would have transtremmed to the conference rooms. The Seed is an enclosed self-sustaining system. It produces its own water and air. Nothing is wasted. And technically, you were complaining.”

“Transtremmed?” Taymar said, giving Kellin her full attention. “Are you telling me that this sta… er … Seed is so big we would actually need to use a transporter to get from one end to the other? How big is it?”

“It is nearly the size of your city, Razere. Are you ready for your meeting?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Of course,” Kellin said. “You might not like the consequences of your choice, but you do have a choice.”

Taymar was working on a withering reply when the touch of a familiar mind on the other side of the door grabbed her attention. She spun to face the grey panel. It had to be a mistake. She didn’t chance a second contact and just to be safe, she shielded her thoughts, but her efforts were useless. When the door slid back, any hope of hiding her shock vanished.

“Jalkean?”

The young Dran stood. He was wearing one of the black Shreet uniforms and it looked ridiculous on him. Seeing how it sagged off his shoulders and yet was still barely long enough to reach his ankles, made Taymar realize that the Shreet were proportionately quite different. His dark hair stuck up in its usual disarray and his light-yellow eyes betrayed the worry he was trying to hide behind his shielded mind. “Hello, Taymar. You finally made it,” he said, genuine relief coloring his words.

Taymar couldn’t manage a reply. Of all the people she could have imagined betraying Drani, Jalkean was the last. In fact, she wouldn’t have even thought it conceivable. Somewhere in the background, she heard Kellin speaking, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. Her mind was spinning with the possibilities of what Jalkean’s presence might mean. Jalkean a traitor? Her brain couldn’t process the thought. Jalkean was a kar, usually her kar, responsible for keeping her out of trouble and making sure she followed the rules. How could he be a traitor? How had he kept that secret?

“Taymar, meet YittBrae, our Commander,” Kellin said in a louder voice than before, successfully managing to snap her out of her trance. “I believe you already know Jalkean of the planet Drani, and this is RydonDii, the ranking telepath stationed here on the Seed.”

That got her attention. Taymar chastised herself for allowing her distraction to make her vulnerable. She couldn’t afford any mistakes. Not if she was going to survive long enough to borrow one of those shuttles and escape. She didn’t need some sad excuse for a telepath getting in her way. She had worked with more than her share of predatory telepaths in her short time on Daryus, and if she had learned nothing else, she knew for sure that the key to beating them was to get them on the defensive. Make them nervous and they would give away all of their secrets, or at least they would give themselves away when trying to steal secrets from someone else.

Taymar focused on the audaciously adorned woman sitting in a chair against the wall. She was not a Shreet. She wasn’t whatever Kellin was either. This telepath was something new. She was wide and stocky. Billowing fabric decorated with dangling crystals and pretty stones which hid what looked like an abundance of fat. Layers of necklaces, and strands of beads and bracelets covered the rest of her. Very little of her skin was visible through her embellishments but her hands were deeply calloused and the skin on her face appeared more like thick hide. Instead of moving and stretching, her skin fit her like a flexible shell.

Like the Shreet, she wore braids, but hers were not made of flesh. Hundreds of them fell down her back like tiny straw-colored cords, each ending in a bead or bell. Her every laboring move was marked by the clatter of jewelry. But, they were all just another distraction because the woman’s eyes were sharp and clear. Taymar felt the telepath’s mind trying to slip past her shield, felt the brazen arrogance, the desire to establish dominance and she reveled in the challenge. She may not know about spaceships and alien races, but she knew how to win a fight, and RydonDii was about to wish she hadn’t picked one.

“I am pleased to meet you at last,” RydonDii announced, pushing herself out of the chair to the sound of tinkling bells. “As KellinDii has already said, I am Rydon. I’m the ranking telepath on the Seed.”

You were the ranking telepath, Taymar thought stepping directly in front of her. “I am Taymar. You’re the best they have? You need to work on your technique before trying to sneak into a real telepath’s thoughts.”

The affront was absolute. Rydon heaved herself away from her chair with indignation and made her second mistake. She built up a surprisingly powerful ball of mental energy and unleashed it at Taymar’s shielded mind. The jolt hit Taymar like the spike from a headache and then dissipated. It wasn’t a bad effort … for a beginner.

The desire to crush Rydon into a quivering mass flooded through Taymar’s mind, that familiar need to fight that all Arleles felt, to win, to destroy. It threatened to consume her as it usually did, but she forced it back. She didn’t need to destroy Rydon physically. No reason to reveal all her secrets. But she did need to establish that she wasn’t a defenseless tool in their game. Jalkean would probably stop her anyhow, but she had to take it as far as she could.

She met Rydon’s attack of energy with one of her own and stood facing her opponent with a smile. All she needed was a break in Rydon’s energy stream. Using her telekinesis, she wrapped her mind around one of the many strands hanging from Rydon’s neck and twisted it. Rydon gasped in surprise and Taymar had her break.

With the skill of a spider, she began weaving thought webs in the opposing telepath’s mind. The thought paths were nowhere near vacant, so her progress was very slow, but it still served its purpose.

Each thought Taymar tangled, multiplied the woman’s distress until she was no longer fighting Taymar but struggling in desperation with the confusion in her head. Rydon let her guard down and Taymar struck. With a mental burst of her own and a telekinetic push, Taymar sent Rydon crumpling to the floor.

Taymar glanced over at Jalkean. He hadn’t even tried to stop her. For a moment, she thought something must be wrong with him, but the look of frustration on his face changed her mind. He hadn’t stopped her because he hadn’t been allowed to. She looked over at Kellin, who was leaning against the table, the brae’s hand resting on his shoulder. His expression was a mix of pride and exasperation. The brae was harder to read. His bony, angular features gave him a generally stern appearance. But whatever he thought about the encounter, he had allowed it to happen.

“This is not finished,” Rydon hissed between gasps of breath as she climbed to her feet with a cacophony of clicking and chiming.

Taymar tamped down the remnants of the adrenaline rush and gave Rydon a mocking smile. “It could be if you’d like another round. Only be warned, next time I will make sure you stay down.”

Pure hatred exuded from the other woman. She turned to the brae for support, but he offered none. Instead, he pulled out his chair and sat down.

The tension in the room had built to nearly intolerable levels when Jalkean broke the silence. “In many respects, she is a very typical Arlele.”

“I’m eager to meet the rest of them,” YittBrae confided, his words slipping and sliding together and clearly unfamiliar on his tongue. “Please sit. We have a lot to talk about.” He turned to Rydon and spoke in the clicks and whistles of his own language.

In a clash of clattering adornment, the telepath whirled from the room — her anger radiating like heat from a fire.

No. Taymar thought as she found a chair nearest the door. This is not over. But it had been worth it. That telepath would think long and hard before she tried to sneak into Taymar’s mind again. Besides, Taymar needed every advantage if she had any hope of sneaking off in one of those shuttles, and she couldn’t be ducking a competing telepath while she did it.

YittBrae handed her a band with a small square attached before seating himself behind the huge table. She glanced at Jalkean. He was wearing one just like it.

<<Translator,>> he sent. The connection of his telepathy was disturbingly comforting.

Without too much trouble, she managed to sort out the technology and turned back to the Shreet in charge. He sat watching her with intense concern. She returned his stare.

The brae wasn’t a large man, but he radiated the energy of a person with great power. The skin braids on his head reached just past the little bump where his ears would have been if he were an Arlele. After that, they turned to white hair that was striking against his rusty orange complexion. His eyes were a brighter orange, almost red and as he evaluated Taymar, he had the pleased expression of a man who knew he had just won something.

When he spoke, Yitt’s voice came out of her translator nearly simultaneously. Even his tone, cordial yet serious, was conveyed through the device. “Jalkean told us when we first made contact that you were an exceptional Arlele. I only wish the dii who flew the mission on Drani could have seen what I just saw. Maybe then he would have heeded Jalkean’s warning not to underestimate you.” Yitt glanced at Jalkean then back at Taymar. “It cost us the ship you turned over, its crew, a great deal of time, resources, and even some lives to get you back. This time, we will exercise more care.”

Taymar looked over at Jalkean again. He was as still as stone and his mind just as impenetrable.

“What’s a dii? A rank, right? Is it a high rank?” she asked, turning back to the brae. She reached out with her mind to feel his thoughts, tentatively at first, but when Jalkean remained silent, she probed a little harder.

“Correct. It denotes rank. Kellin’s rank is dii, and yes, considering the short time he has served with the Shreet, it is a fairly high rank. Why did you send our ship into Alliance space, Taymar?” Yitt’s expression was neutral, but Taymar could feel the importance of the question in his thoughts.

She considered not answering. After all, it wasn’t necessarily a good idea to seem too cooperative to any of these people, Jalkean included. She did want to live though. There was that. And, what would her silence gain? No, she needed to be cooperative without being overly eager. Hopefully, that would get them to drop their guard without raising suspicion. There was no point trying to be endearing she decided, not that she could pull that off anyhow.

“I was hoping to escape in the confusion. And I did,” she said, her tone curt.

“What made you so sure we were not trying to help you escape your plight on Drani to begin with?”

Taymar rested one elbow on the armrest of the chair, her eyes never leaving Yitt’s as she considered his strange question. What was he asking? What did he really want to know? Was he trying to trick her? She wasn’t sure, but whatever it was, she didn’t like it.

“It’s hard to say. Maybe it was the three Shreet who burst into Nevvis’s room and held me by force while I was transported into a cage. Or maybe it was the other hundred people who were shoved into that cage with me. Could have also been all the dead bodies while the Dran tried to get the Arleles under control. I can’t really isolate the exact moment I realized I needed to save my own life.”

Yitt glanced at Kellin. Irritation rang out of his thoughts, but he didn’t voice it and his facial features stayed neutral. He was good. Better, in fact, than most of the non-telepaths she had dealt with while hiding on Daryus. Her time battling wits with other telepaths on Daryus was beginning to pay off. She was already getting a better feel for the Shreet mind. Soon, even with the language barrier, she would at least be able to sort out the gist of what he was thinking and feeling.

“I’m sorry for the way the dii handled that situation,” Yitt said, choosing his words carefully. “Because of limited time and space, we did have to get many people onto a relatively small ship, but it should not have been done in that manner. How did you get off the Alliance ship?”

“I stole a shuttle.”

“They didn’t notice?”

“There were shuttles going everywhere. They never even questioned it until I deviated from the pre-programed flight path.”

The brae raised his brows in surprise. She wouldn’t have thought he could do that given the bony ridge above his eyes. “And they just let you fly off with their shuttle?”

“No. They tried to shoot me down. Turns out they didn’t want to destroy their own shuttle in the process, which worked in my favor.”

She caught Jalkean’s smile out of the corner of her eye, but the brae didn’t so much as smirk. “Where did you go?”

“Daryus.”

“Why Daryus?”

“Why not?”

“What did you do on Daryus?”

Taymar sat back in her chair and folded her arms. “I think you already know the answers to these questions, so why are you asking them?”

“I want to hear your side of it. What did you do on Daryus?”

She considered the situation for a moment. Jalkean’s mind was still sealed tighter than a fish’s asshole, so he was no help. The brae was digging for something, though, that much was certain. She felt around his thoughts a little more and decided to take a guess.

“You want to see if my story matches what you were told, don’t you? To see if I’m a spy like Kellin? Well, I’m not.” She changed her focus to Kellin who sat silently on the brae’s left. “I worked for a company called ISTC outsmarting other telepaths. I had a great time until he showed up and hauled me off to Captain Sean.” Taymar jabbed her finger toward Kellin who sat silently on the brae’s left.

Yitt smiled. It looked weird because he had almost no lips. “How did they find you?”

Taymar shrugged. “I don’t know. Ask him.”

Kellin folded his arms across his chest and regarded her with a casual glance. “We tracked down possible destinations based on available fuel, air supply, and intra-space broadcasts. To be honest, I didn’t expect to find her so easily.”

Yitt nodded, but before he could ask his next question, Jalkean interrupted. “If I may, I’m certain the Dran knew where she was the entire time. They had to.”

Kellin glanced in Jalkean’s direction. “Then why did they not tell us where she was? It was Drani that requested the Alliance’s assistance. Why would they do that if they knew where she was already?”

“Could be a combination of things. Drani doesn’t have ships capable of inter-space travel. It would have also been a good chance to get the Alliance working for Drani? What better way to convert the Alliance than with Taymar? She has a way of making an impact.” He gave a non-committal shrug that looked too much like one of Nevvis’s shrugs. “Could be they were just giving themselves more time. I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that …” he pointed to the band encircling Taymar’s left forearm, the miracle of technology which combines with the Dran’s ability to inflict pain telepathically to keep the Arleles under control. “Has a tracking device. They had to know where she was.”

Kellin nodded. “That is a possibility. By sending the Alliance to retrieve her, Drani was able to place their people on an important ship, assess Alliance technology and convince Captain Sean McCauffer that Drani is not a slave planet as we had all assumed. It was a smart move. And I expressed those concerns to Captain McCauffer at the time.”

Yitt stared off to the side for some time following Kellin’s assessment, before finally turning his attention back to Taymar. “If they knew where you were, then perhaps they knew where you were going. How could the Dran have known that, Taymar?”

She shrugged.

Jalkean offered an answer. “No. It was her band. It had to be.” Jalkean reached over and tapped on the band on Taymar’s left forearm. She yanked her arm away, but Jalkean didn’t seem to notice. The band’s surface swirled in browns and reds where Jalkean’s finger had touched it.

“Are you telling me her armband can be tracked from Drani to Daryus?” Yitt asked.

Taymar shared his skepticism. “You can’t be serious,” she said, looking at the band with renewed hatred.

“On Taymar,” Jalkean said. “That armband can probably be tracked into the afterlife.”

Yitt considered Jalkean’s words for a long time before speaking. His thoughts twisted and turned, and she couldn’t follow them fast enough to make sense of what he was thinking. Sorting out his thoughts in a different language only complicated the process. His concern over possible espionage went deeper than thinking she might be a spy. That much she did manage to sort out.

“Did you know they could track your band?” Yitt asked Taymar finally.

Taymar shook her head. “Not to Daryus. I mean, the possibility occured to me, but I thought I was far enough away.”

“Why didn’t you have it removed?”

“I tried. No one on Daryus could figure it out. So either I cut off my arm or take the chance that the Dran couldn’t track it. I decided to take the risk. If you’d like to give it a go, I’ll gladly let you.”

Yitt held out his hand. “Let me see it.”

Taymar leaned forward and placed her arm on the desk. Yitt pushed on the band much the way Captain Sean had back on the Regal and seemed equally surprised to find it was almost like a liquid or a gel in its behavior. He ran his hand along its length then circled her arm, looking for the seam. He couldn’t find one. It was one solid but infinitely supple piece of viscous material that could be changed by a Dran’s bio-key into shackles, a biometric reader or, apparently, even a tracking device.

“I would suggest you have it removed and disposed of as soon as possible.” Jalkean said while Yitt was still prying at the band.

Taymar stared at Jalkean in shock. A Dran suggesting that an Arlele’s band be removed? It was unheard of. Without the bands, the Arleles would destroy the Dran. The Arleles would likely destroy themselves as well, but that was another matter.

“Do all Arleles wear these?” Yitt asked, trying to peer beneath it.

“Not all of them are like Taymar’s, but yes, all Arleles are banded at the age of five.”

“Is this where the containment capability you were telling me about is generated?”

Taymar jerked her hand back and glared at Jalkean. Now that was the kind of Dran response she knew.

“Calm down, Taymar. No one’s going to use it,” Jalkean said before turning back to Yitt. “Yes. It uses nanites to form the containment field. It also identifies the wearer and that person’s status and their ki in case there is a problem or the Arlele doesn’t want to cooperate.”

“Or when they just want to be slithering zimits!” Taymar added, pushing her chair away from the table. Not that she could get out of room if she tried, but it made her feel better.

Jalkean smiled at her. He had a great smile. It was hard not to smile back, even when she was furious with him. It did usually manage to cool her off a few degrees, however.

He turned his smile on the brae and continued. “Most of them don’t track a person off planet, but Taymar is an exception to most things. That’s why I would suggest you have it taken off. The Alliance already knows where this station is and I’m sure they assume this is where you would bring her, but it’s still not good to have a tracking device to help them. Who knows what else it can do?”

“I agree.” Yitt said.

At that moment, the door slid open, and another Shreet walked in, this one blueish and, based on the hair to skin ratio, younger than the brae. Yitt switched off his translator and conferred with the young Shreet in their strange clicking language. Taymar tried again to follow the gist of what they were talking about, but the Shreet minds were so different, it was nearly impossible. Something was coming, and the Yitt wasn’t happy about it. She got that much, but the rest was lost on her.

When they had completed their conversation, the blue Shreet left without a single glance at anyone else in the room. The brae turned back to her, his expression as cool as it had been before the interruption, but Kellin’s frown gave them away. Whatever the other Shreet had reported to his boss, it wasn’t good news.

“Can you remove her band with the key you brought?” Yitt asked Jalkean.

The Dran shook his head. “No. But your engineering department can probably figure it out.”

“Yes. We will need to study this technology. KellinDii, you and Jalkean see to that right away. Taymar, I appreciate your answers. Kellin will find suitable quarters for you and give you a chance to wash and change into clean clothes. I will meet with you this evening for a-tyr. We can talk more then. Right now, I’m afraid I am already very late for a debriefing.” He stood to watch them go. “KellinDii, send your report to UrvoDii as soon as you can and be sure she is given a guide. I don’t want her to get lost on the ship.”

Kellin bowed then followed Jalkean and Taymar from the room.

“I am certain I can function without a guide,” Taymar said, trying to hide her elation about having her band removed.

“The Seed is huge. We don’t want to lose you again.”

She gave a short laugh. “Yeah. I’m sure that’s it. Jalkean can be my guide.”

The Dran smiled. “I have a guide too, most of the time.”

Taymar sensed traces of irritation in his thoughts, but they vanished too quickly to sort out. She got the point just the same. They were being watched.