“But where are we going?” Connis Reven heard her older sister Bayla demand. Bayla was speaking to their two pilot/guards, her temper obviously in full control. “We were just attacked as we approached the station, and the attacking ship is now coming after ours! Why aren’t we fighting and destroying them instead of running away?”
“We’re running away because our ship was damaged in that first attack, ma’am,” Raym, our copilot answered in a distracted way as he and Tarman gave most of their attention to the boards in front of them. “We’ve got to find a place to make the necessary repairs, but without an escort. Brace for a double jump, please.”
Two seconds of warning was barely enough time for Connis and her sister to find something to grab onto, and then they were in the midst of the double jump. Connis felt her insides turn over as usual after the first jump, but the second part of the jump made her insides go sideways. There was supposed to be a longer pause between jumps to let people adjust, but unexpected attacks obviously called for unusual responses.
“That was terrible!” Denne, Connis’s younger sister sounded outraged as she joined them in the control room. Denne had been busy fixing her hair when the attack came, and had clearly only now made it out of her cabin. “What in hell do you two think you’re doing?”
“We were attacked as we approached the station and now we’re running,” Bayla answered before Connis could say anything, only glancing at their sister. “Sometimes it’s possible to follow a ship through a single jump, but a double makes following much harder.”
“Especially when both jumps are made with deliberate pre-thought,” Connis contributed. “Or at least the jumps looked deliberate from here. Where are we, Tarman?”
“I’ll know in a minute, because those jumps actually were random,” the pilot responded, and then he made a soft sound of satisfaction. “Yes, luck is definitely with us. There’s a habitable planet in that system just ahead, so we can set down and make repairs. It’s too bad the planet doesn’t have a station, but it ought to have some kind of port. That should do almost as well.”
“What do you mean, we were attacked?” Denne demanded, speaking mostly to Bayla. “No one would dare to attack us, not if they knew who we were. That attack must have been a mistake.”
“They fired at us, Denne,” Bayla returned with a touch of exasperation, one hand rubbing at her middle. “Did you expect us to stop and say, ‘Hey, you can’t fire at us, we’re much too important?’ It could have been one of Father’s enemies who’s decided to make sure Father doesn’t have an heir. Next month Father is supposed to announce which of us he’s decided on to be his heir, but announcing his decision won’t do much good if we’re all dead.”
“But we’re not dead, so whichever fool sent those attackers is out of luck,” Denne said with a lot of satisfaction. “And as soon as we get home we have to make Father start a search to find out who was behind the attack to be sure it doesn’t happen again. I was looking forward to having lunch on the station in that excellent restaurant we were told about, and now we have to eat here again. I’m starting to be sorry I came along on this trip with you two.”
And with that Denne turned and walked away, probably to get the lunch she’d mentioned, Connis thought. Denne had started to be very fond of good food, so much so that she was beginning to put on some weight that she really didn’t need. Denne also tended to avoid exercising whenever she could, preferring to spend her time overseeing the finances of their father’s multi-dimensional empire. Bayla took care of checking out the personnel of the various corporations, making sure none of the more influential employees were actually working for one of their father’s business rivals.
And I just float around looking at everything and doing nothing, Connis thought as she followed Denne to the eating area of the yacht. Father’s tried to get me interested in one phase or another of the companies more than once, but no one phase of all those businesses seems able to hold my attention for long. Now that he’s stopped trying to get me to pick something the way my sisters have already done, it’s fairly obvious that when Father announces his heir next month the name he speaks won’t be mine.
The dissatisfaction she felt over that truth was one of the reasons Connis hadn’t been enjoying the trip as much as her sisters. Father had supplied the yacht and the pilot/guards, and had given each of his daughters quite a lot of money before sending them off to have a good time. The vacation was his gift to them, he’d said, a gift to show how much he loved and valued them. No one was supposed to have known about their travel plans, but apparently someone had made the effort to find out…
After a moment Bayla joined them at the table, but the meal they shared was a silent one. The food provided by the auto chef was fairly good, but Connis always felt that stasis tended to … flatten the taste of dishes even while it preserved that food. Her sisters insisted that Connis was imagining things, but that was probably because neither of them could cook. Connis did know how to cook, cooking being one of the things that had held her attention for a short time, but the point wasn’t important enough to start an argument over.
After they’d finished eating, Connis sipped her coffee while Denne had tea and Bayla ordered a second glass of wine. Bayla considered drinking anything but wine with lunch or dinner as being low-class, but for once she didn’t laugh at her sisters over their tea and coffee. Connis decided that Bayla was too distracted to laugh, and her guess was proven true when Raym came out of the control room. Denne seemed to be daydreaming about something, but Raym had Bayla’s immediate attention along with Connis’s.
“We’re heading down into atmosphere, and there’s good news and bad news,” Raym said, stopping only a couple of feet from the table they sat at. “The good news is that we ought to make it down in one piece, but the bad news is that the ship seems to be more damaged than Tarman and I first thought. And to add to that, there are people on this world but no ports.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Denne stated at once while the big man stared at them with serious brown eyes. “How can there be people but no port? What do the people do with their own ships?”
“The obvious answer to that is, the people don’t have any ships of their own,” Bayla responded with annoyance for Denne’s foolish comment, then she turned her attention back to Raym. “Just how backward are those people? Will we have to defend ourselves once we land?”
“Not if we land in a sufficiently isolated spot, which is exactly what we intend to do,” Raym answered in a soothing way. “We won’t have any trouble, but the way the control board keeps flashing red is making Tarman nervous. He wants you three ladies to be in one of the escape pods for the trip down, but he told me to tell you that it’s nothing more than a precaution, which is the complete truth. The pod won’t launch unless we launch it or lose all control of the ship, so you don’t have to worry about being left on your own. We’re just under orders not to take any chances with your lives, so… ”
“So we get to be stuffed into a pod for an hour or two,” Bayla grumbled before finishing the rest of her wine in one swallow. Denne made a sound of heavy annoyance, but Connis didn’t bother doing even that much. When it came to their protection, all three of them knew that Tarman and Raym were in total charge. If any of them tried to keep from cooperating with the men, the men were allowed to force them into cooperating. Father was more concerned with their survival than with their dignity, something Connis and her sisters had learned at a very early age.
It took no more than five minutes to reach one of the two escape pods, and it took that long only because they weren’t hurrying. Connis wasn’t very eager to spend time strapped into the pod either, but when it became her turn to enter the pod she did it without comment. Raym waited until Connis strapped herself into the narrow bunk just the way Denne and Bayla had already done, and then he closed the pod’s lock with a muted clang.
“So now we’re in the dark,” Bayla’s voice came, a touch of annoyance to be heard. “The interior lighting won’t come on unless the pod is launched, and since the pod isn’t going to be launched we won’t have any lights. With that in mind, I’m going to take a nap.”
Denne said something in agreement, but Connis was too busy with her thoughts to do the same. If their being in the pod was only a precaution to soothe Tarman’s worry, why had Raym closed the pod’s lock? In the event of an emergency the pod’s lock would close automatically as soon as all the bunks had occupants or someone pressed the switch to let the pod know that no one else would be entering. Since there were only three bunks in the pod they were as ready for an emergency as they could get even with the lock left open – unless the ship was more seriously damaged than Tarman and Raym had let on.
Connis stirred as best she could in the straps holding her to the bunk, wishing she could share the idea with her sisters. Bayla and Denne were grown women who deserved to know what was going on, but chances were Bayla would curse and Denne would throw a fit if Connis told them about her suspicions. The two were better off napping while they could, and Connis wished she could join them. Life would have been a lot more pleasant for Connis if she didn’t have this habit of noticing things other people didn’t…
A fairly long stretch of time went by, making Connis hope that this time her guess had been wrong. The soft sounds of breathing coming from her sisters’ bunks let her know that they were both asleep, and Connis was just about to drift off herself when there was a loud thump and the lights came on in the pod.
“What’s going on?” Bayla demanded as Denne exclaimed in instant annoyance at being rudely awakened. “The lights are on and I can’t make these straps release.”
“The pod’s been launched,” Connis said, supplying the obvious to help orient her sisters more quickly. “I think the ship was damaged a lot worse than we were told, but there’s still a possibility that it was Tarman or Raym who launched us rather than an automatic ship response.”
“Was that comment supposed to make us feel better?” Denne demanded, almost wildly. “What difference does it make if one of the men launched us or if it was the ship? We’re still all alone now, and heading for a world that doesn’t even have a port!”
“If the men launched us, there’s still a chance that they can land the ship safely,” Connis said, loudly enough to override Bayla’s cursing. “If they do land safely they can repair the ship, then they can come looking for us. There is a transponder in this pod, after all, so the ship won’t have any trouble finding the place where we’ll land.”
“You hope the ship won’t have any trouble finding us,” Bayla snarled, then she laughed bitterly. “Come to think of it, I hope the same thing. But they’d better not take their time coming after us, or there won’t be anything left of us to be rescued. We’re not equipped to last on our own for very long.”
“This pod has water and emergency rations, so we won’t starve or die of thirst,” Connis pointed out, wishing she could see more than Bayla’s side. The three bunks were in an upside down U around three of the four sides of the pod, which put Connis and her sisters pretty much head to foot in that same upside down U. “Once we land we’ll take a look around for any signs of habitation, and then – ”
“Emergency rations?” Denne screeched, sounding as if she’d just been knifed. “If eating that gunk is your idea of not starving – ! No, I simply won’t do it.”
“Then you can go hungry,” Bayla told her flatly after making a sound of annoyance. “It won’t hurt you to lose some weight, and that will leave more of the rations for me and Connis. Thanks for volunteering, Denne.”
Denne started to screech out her outrage and unhappiness with the whole situation, and after a moment Bayla’s shouting joined in. Connis ignored the fact that her sisters were busy, as usual, blaming each other for the mess they were in, and tried to make some plans for when the pod landed. But making plans when you didn’t know what you were going to be facing was more than a little hard…
Connis still hadn’t come up with much in the way of planning when there was another, gentler, thump and the pod lights flickered in an oddly definite way. The thump and flickering of the lights silenced the argument Bayla and Denne were having, so Connis was able to hear the small click that said the safety straps holding her down were now unlocked. That particular fact was proven conclusively when Bayla released the straps and got out of her bunk.
“Obviously we’ve landed, so we don’t have to be tied down any longer,” Bayla said, ignoring the fact that Denne and Connis were already releasing their own straps so the announcement hadn’t been necessary. “There’s a green light here on the panel next to the lock, which means it’s safe for us to go outside. I’m going to see what kind of planet we’re stuck on.”
“Bayla, wait,” Connis tried as she left her own bunk, too aware of the way Bayla had already hit the switch to open the hatch. If it had been an airlock they would have been better off, but a simple hatch was much easier to open for people who might not know how to use an airlock. “We don’t know what’s outside, so going slow is probably the best idea – ”
“Stop being so annoyingly cautious, Connis,” Denne carped from where she stood right behind Bayla, and then she laughed. “Cautious Connis, I like the sound of that, especially since it’s so fitting. If you’re afraid to come out with us, just stay in here and huddle under a blanket or something. We’ll take a look around and let you know what we see.”
By that time Bayla had the hatch open and was stepping out onto the short ramp, Denne following right behind. Connis felt the urge to use some of the words Bayla usually did, but instead just followed after the two. Just walking out was a bad idea, but if her sisters were going there was no sense in Connis hanging back…
And one aspect of the planet was forceful in making itself known as soon as Connis reached the hatch. Heavy heat tried to beat her down after the air-conditioned coolness of the pod, but Connis ignored the heat after deciding that it might have been better if the planet had been cold. Cold would have driven her sisters back into the pod, but heat like this could be coped with by stripping down.
But stripping down wasn’t immediately necessary. Both Bayla and Denne wore short-sleeved shirts just the way Connis did, so they had nothing in the way of sleeves to roll up as they strolled away from the pod. What they strolled over was a grassland, open and fresh-looking as far as the eye could see, nothing in the way of trees marring the landscape. A glance over her shoulder showed Connis plenty of trees a short distance behind the pod, obviously a forest. Why the pod had landed so close to the trees Connis didn’t know, but there must have been a reason…
“Not a single sign of any kind of civilization,” Bayla said from where she and Denne had stopped about ten or fifteen feet ahead of Connis. Bayla was looking across the grassland, and Denne was doing the same. “All this grass is kind of pretty, but it’s not likely to do us much good while we wait to be rescued. If the rescue takes more than a few days, Denne won’t be the only one who’ll be losing some weight.”
“Tarman and Raym will fix the ship and they will find us,” Denne stated as Connis reached her sisters. “And even if they don’t, Father will find us. He’ll send a million people out searching if he has to, so all we have to do is be patient.”
Bayla made a sound of agreement, which did nothing to stop the way she and Denne just stared off across the grassland. Connis knew that their being found wasn’t the guaranteed happening that her sisters wanted to consider it, but waiting a short while before putting her sisters into contact with reality might be best. At the moment neither Bayla nor Denne would be able to admit that they might not be found by rescuers, not when any searchers their father sent out would have no idea where to start looking. If Tarman and Raym weren’t still alive and able to fix the ship, Connis knew that the only way they’d survive would be to find some of the people who supposedly lived on this world…
“I think we ought to go back to the pod now,” Connis said gently after a long moment. “It’s really hot out here, but if we close the hatch again the air recirculaters will cool things down. How about it?”
“All right, Connis, if going back will make you feel better we can go back,” Bayla said in the long-suffering tone she often used when doing Connis a “favor.” “It’s probably not long past midday on this world, and we can come back out at sunset. I used to enjoy watching sunsets from time to time, so – ”
Bayla and Denne had started to turn toward Connis while Bayla spoke, but turning far enough had made Bayla’s words cut off abruptly while her eyes – and Denne’s – went wide. Connis had a sudden, very bad feeling, and then she nearly had heart failure from a big hand that abruptly rested on her shoulder.
“How fortunate we chose to hunt this day in this direction, brothers,” a deep voice said from right behind Connis, an odd accent turning their familiar standard language almost archaic. “Our catch will be the envy of all who see it.”
“Indeed,” another male voice agreed while still another chuckled. “And we ourselves shall feast well from this catch when once we have returned it to our dwelling. Come closer, little chickens, and we shall – ”
And that was as far as the voice got before Bayla and Denne both turned and ran. But the two ran away from the pod, which must have made sense to them because the strange men were between them and the pod. Connis could understand how fright made people do stupid things, but acting mindlessly was another matter entirely. The grassland provided nothing in the way of a place to run to, which meant it would have been a much better idea to try getting past the men in an effort to reach the pod. Not to mention the fact that they hadn’t even tried to free Connis from the hand on her shoulder…
“Two chickens flee but the third remains unmoving,” the first male voice said musingly as two very large male bodies passed Connis as they ran after Bayla and Denne. One of the men had light brown hair and the other darker brown, but both wore their hair very long and tied at the nape of their necks. The only clothing they wore was very brief cloth coverings that were little more than g-strings, and they were both barefoot. But they did have belts with long knives at their sides to the left, and what seemed to be shorter knives to the right.
“Two chickens flee but the third remains unmoving,” the man behind Connis said. “Perhaps the third chicken is too taken by fear to flee with the others. Are you frozen in fear, little chicken?”
“If it’s fear that tells me there’s no point in running blindly, then I’m frozen in fear,” Connis answered without turning. “We did nothing to insult or harm you men, so you have no right to impose on us. Or are you just offering us help in a less than usual way?”
Connis did turn then, catching a surprised look on the face of the man who still had his hand on her shoulder. He was just as big as his two friends and was wearing just as little, but his hair was blond in its long tail. He was strongly handsome and had the hardest, trimmest body Connis had ever seen on a man, and the look in his pale blue eyes warmed with his smile.
“I had not expected to find a woman of sense among chickens,” the man said, approval also warming his words. “You and those others may well lose your lives without the proper protection, therefore shall you all accompany us in a return to our dwelling. There are few enough females about that to lose three would be completely unacceptable.”
“We have a … dwelling of our own that will give us all the protection we need,” Connis said, gesturing toward the pod. “My sisters were foolish to come out here without stopping to look around, but I can promise you that the same won’t happen again. Our friends will arrive very soon to take us away again, and we won’t step foot out of the pod until they arrive.”
“Your sisters were not alone in their foolishness, for you stood with them,” the big blonde returned as he looked down at her, his tone and expression telling Connis that she was being gently scolded. “Foolishness done once will likely be done again, save that there are those about who disallow all foolishness. And now that the chickens no longer flee, we may leave this area for one of greater comfort and safety.”
Frustration flashed hot and hard inside Connis over the very obvious fact that the blonde had no intention of paying attention to her effort to get him and his friends to leave. The noise her sisters were making was coming closer, showing the two had been caught, but Connis still forced herself to turn and watch the approach. Getting mad and saying something stupid wasn’t likely to do much good, so she needed something to distract her.
And the sight of her sisters slung over broad shoulders did a fairly good job of distracting Connis. The man with light brown hair had Bayla and the one with darker hair had Denne, and both women kicked and squirmed and struggled to free themselves of the arm holding them in place. Bayla cursed and Denne screeched out demands and orders, but neither effort did the least amount of good.
“Come this way, little dove,” the blonde said as he wrapped his hand around Connis’s arm. “My brothers will bring the chickens in the same direction without harming them.”
When he tugged gently on the arm he held, Connis had no choice but to go with him. Refusing would have been a waste of time and effort, not to mention that one of them had to behave rationally. If shouting and screaming and struggling was likely to do any good, Bayla and Denne would already be free. Cooperation would provide a better chance for escape later on, so Connis simply bided her time.
The big blonde led the way around the pod and into the forest a short distance, to a place where three horses stood among the trees. The horses’ bridles were decorated with feathers and things, but underneath short, brightly- colored blankets of some kind were obviously saddles. The blonde led Connis to a yellow horse with black mane and tail, then picked her up and sat her on the saddle. Since Connis wore pants she had no trouble sitting astride, and a moment later the blonde had mounted to sit behind her.
But it was still a few minutes before they were able to leave. Denne, who tended to wear fashionably long skirts instead of pants or short skirts, was put face down across a saddle. A moment later the dark-haired man had also mounted, and Denne ended up held down in front of him. Bayla wore pants the way Connis did, but she wasn’t given the chance to sit astride. She was also put face down over a saddle, and once the man who had caught her was settled as well they were finally ready to leave. Bayla and Denne still hadn’t stopped cursing or screeching, but the men ignored the noise as if it wasn’t happening and simply followed along after the blonde’s horse.
What Connis had thought was a forest turned out to be a large stand of woods. They were through it and out the other side in ten minutes or so, following a trail that became a dirt road. There were open fields on both sides of the road, and after a short while Connis also saw a herd of cattle. At one point, far back beyond a field to the right, Connis saw something that looked like a house and maybe a barn behind the house, but the structures were too far away for Connis to be certain.
The road eventually led to what had to be a town, even though the odd houses weren’t all that close to one another on the outskirts. Some distance ahead was a grouping that looked more like stores than residences and the houses seemed closer together, but the blonde turned off at a house on the right before Connis could be certain and then he rode around to the left side of the house. Most of the place seemed to be wide windows, but once they were around on the side Connis could see a door just behind what must have been a rail for tying the horses.
“Our dwelling,” the blonde said with a gesture toward the house before he dismounted. “Which means the din will soon be silenced.”
The last of his words were more of a mutter as he tied his horse to the railing, and then he came back to lift Connis down from the horse. The other two men had also reached the railing, which meant that the shouting and screeching were closer than they’d been on the road. Connis had never before realized that her sisters had such a large capacity for sustained cursing and screaming – and also lacked the good sense to know when an effort was nothing but a waste of time and energy.
The blonde held to Connis’s arm again as he led the way into the house, going right once he walked through the door. Connis was taken along the hallway with him, a hallway that wasn’t very long. After just a few steps the hallway widened into a room, one that was obviously at the front of the house. The room’s walls were almost all widely opened windows, and a pleasant breeze moved through to lower the very high heat.
The floor of the room was covered with what looked like a large woven mat in a riot of colors, and just beyond the end of the hallway on the right was a big fireplace. Next to the fireplace was a tall wooden cabinet, and that was it as far as furnishings went. Not a single stick of furniture that Connis could see when she walked to the middle of the room and turned, not even in the three … alcoves rather than rooms at the back of the front room. The alcoves were large enough to be considered rooms on their own, but archways led into the three areas without a single sign of a door. The only area with a door was to the extreme right of the alcoves, and that was probably a bathroom.
“Enough!” a male voice shouted above the noise that Connis’s sisters were now making only a few steps away from Connis. Bayla and Denne had been dragged into the room, and the two men who had caught them were now busy glaring at them while the dark-haired one spoke. “There has been enough of caterwauling and insult offered, and now there is to be no more of it! You two will be as silent as your sister, else shall there be punishment for your misbehavior. Have I made myself clear?”
“Not as clear as I’m about to be,” Bayla growled, her fists on her hips as she returned the glaring. “We didn’t ask to be kidnapped by a bunch of barbarians, so if you don’t like the way we act and what we say you can just turn us loose again. You had no right to drag us along with you as if we were three nobodys, and I demand that we be taken back where we came from.”
“You wish to be returned to a place where danger in many forms waits to fall upon you?” the dark-haired man returned with a snort of ridicule. “Undoubtedly there are men upon this world who would do such a dishonorable thing, yet are we not numbered among them. You will remain here with us where your safety is assured, and we will not speak again upon the matter of your leaving.”
“You don’t want to talk about us leaving?” Bayla said much too brightly with a smile that told Connis her sister was about to do something rash. “Then I won’t waste my time using words again.”
Connis wasn’t even able to shout, “Don’t!” before Bayla kicked out at the man in front of her. Bayla had had lessons in unarmed combat, but after a time she’d stopped taking the lessons. Bayla seemed to think she’d learned enough, and the kick she gave the dark-haired man was hard enough to double him over. The man with light brown hair stood only a step from the dark-haired one, and without hesitation Bayla launched another kick at the second man. Connis was sure that Bayla meant to attack the blonde as well once the second man was hurt, but the matter didn’t turn out according to plan.
The lighter-haired man threw an arm down to block Bayla’s kick, and then he had Bayla’s foot in his hands. One twist and Bayla went face down to the floor, voicing a scream of rage when her foot wasn’t released again. The fall hadn’t seemed to hurt her at all, unlike the dark-haired man who had doubled over with pain. As Bayla struggled to free herself and Denne stood back with her hands over her mouth, the dark-haired man straightened with a hand to his middle.
“It seems that this little chicken has failed to learn an important life truth,” the dark-haired man said after taking a deep breath, staring down at Bayla with less than friendliness. “When one offers violence, one may expect to receive nothing less in return. You may release her now, brother.”
“Certainly, brother,” the lighter-haired man answered with a smile as he let go of Bayla’s foot, then took the knives-belt the dark-haired man had opened and taken off. The dark-haired man now stood in nothing but that glorified g-string, which Bayla didn’t seem to notice as she quickly climbed to her feet. Connis started to take a step toward them, trying to think of a way to calm down the dark-haired man as well as her sister, but a big hand coming to her shoulder again kept her right where she’d been standing all along. Obviously the blonde didn’t like the idea of her interfering, and a moment later it was too late to try what she’d had in mind.
As soon as Bayla was standing and facing the dark-haired man again, she tried to launch another kick at him. This time, though, she didn’t even come close to connecting, not when the man moved as fast as he did. One second he was a perfectly easy target, and the next he’d slipped behind the kick in some way. He’d also slipped behind Bayla, and the next moment his left arm was around Bayla’s waist and lifting her off the floor bent over. Bayla shouted and struggled, but nothing she did kept the big dark-haired man from pulling down her pants and underwear.
“As you seem to enjoy producing a great deal of noise, little chicken, I will now assist you in adding to that enjoyment,” the dark-haired man said over Bayla’s outraged yelling. “Also will you now be given a proper response to your previous actions.”
And with that the man began to hit Bayla’s bottom, his open hand producing loud smacking noises. Connis felt the urge to flinch at the strength being put into those smacks, but Bayla did more than flinch.
“Stop that, you lousy barbarian, stop hitting me!” Bayla yelled, kicking even harder than she’d been doing. “That hurts, you damned fool, so stop it right now! Ow!”
The big man ignored Bayla’s demands completely as he kept smacking her bottom hard and fast, and after a couple of minutes Bayla began to howl instead of yell. Another couple of minutes of having her bottom spanked and Bayla was crying, but the spanking didn’t stop. The big dark-haired man just kept smacking Bayla’s bottom until her seat had turned red, and only then was she put back on her feet.
Connis stood and watched her older sister bouncing and crying where she now stood, and all she could do was sigh. It looked like she and her sisters now had a bigger problem than a disabled ship to worry about…