The brutal summer heat on the southern continent of Caz pressed down on Hunter with heavy hands. He knew his position was too exposed, to the sun and prying eyes. Either could be deadly. Everything about him said he was an off-worlder: too tall, too pale and no horns. He opened his senses searching for any ill intent in the vicinity. Behind him, the café was aglow with busy minds. The street stretching off into the heat-hazed distance seemed empty. Even as the Human with the highest rating of psi-skills ever tested, he still had to rely on his ears and eyes sometimes. He reached for his partner, but Trash wasn’t close enough, yet.
A relentless sun burned in a pale green sky, turning the high desert into an oven. Having a Cazak as a partner had gotten him used to temperatures above the Human norm on their ship, but it hadn’t prepared him for the blistering winds off the veld. This meager row of buildings containing a café, general store and temple constituted the only town for miles. He slipped into the shaded doorway of the cafe to wait for Trash to arrive. Out of the sun, the temperature dropped from unbearable to merely punishing. He eyed the entrance to the café. It wouldn’t be much cooler inside, and he didn’t want to be on his own in there. That led to all sorts of misunderstandings.
Cazaks didn’t mind other species wandering around their planet as long as they held to the customs. A single person eating in a restaurant was nearly sacrilegious. They had a herd-like mentality that assumed a person alone was either clanless or insane. Hunter didn’t want to call that much attention to himself.
Scorching breezes tugged at his clothing and sucked the moisture from his skin. He felt his lips crack and tasted blood. The moisture from his breath evaporated as he exhaled, making his sinuses sting on the inhale. Another few minutes of this and he would be forced inside regardless of the repercussions. Across the road, the land stretched out to the horizon in rolling dun-colored hills covered in prickly vegetation. In the distance, he could make out shepherds in flowing cloaks, the color of sand, keeping a careful eye on their flocks of short-legged trena. Another biting wind brought their gamey smell to him. The horned retha was cherished by Cazaks while its unhorned cousin, the trena, was considered just a lowly animal. Hunter couldn’t find much difference between the two except the horns, but apparently that was enough for one of their nineteen gods to have blessed the creature.
“I’m here. Go in!” Trash commanded as he rounded the corner of the cafe. “You are an unlovely color. Somewhere between half-cooked trena and saser pulp that’s gone bad.”
“I am neither meat nor fruit,” Hunter grumbled, ducking his head to enter the cafe. He was tall for a Human, and very tall compared to Cazaks, not counting their horns.
Trash snorted a laugh. “I’ve always thought that about you.” His brown eyes twinkled with the usual hint of mischief.
Hunter rolled his eyes at the innuendo, although he wasn’t totally sure of the Cazak equivalents. For a species with only two sexes, they had an unending number of gender roles, many of which couldn’t be translated into a Human mindset. After fifteen years as Trash’s partner, Hunter had enough of an estimation of the terms to normally keep himself out of trouble.
The cafe was dimly lit, a relief from the piercing sun outside. The earthy scent of Cazak spices flavored the air and conversation murmured just beneath the steady beat of a folk song. Dark red fabric draped the ceiling and walls, giving Hunter the feeling of being inside a throbbing heart, only this one was way above his body temperature. Trash clamped strong fingers around Hunter’s elbow, a signal to his countrymen that this Human was invited. With a thumb on either side of their hands, Cazaks had powerful grips. Hunter anticipated bruises.
The door opened behind them, letting a scorching wind pepper them with sand. A man in a caped biosuit paused in the vestibule to let his eyes adjust to the darkness.
“Darack!” Trash greeted the man. “Perfect timing,” he said as he brushed sand off his shoulders and shook out his long curly hair.
Hunter realized that the rising tension he’d felt had actually been Trash’s. Two was considered an extremely unlucky number and the locals were pointedly ignoring them. Now that Darack was here, they were three, a harmonious number. A general sense of approval and relief settled over the patrons of the café.
A heavy set Cazak wearing long black robes approached and bowed a greeting. “Heshral,” he said, addressing them respectfully. “You wish a table?”
The man’s Standard was heavily accented, but understandable. Hunter relaxed a little. If they spoke Standard here, they were used to off-worlders. A quick check of the tables showed more than a few heads without horns. And the heads that sported horns, a finger’s length and razor sharp, all had relaxed ears. A Cazak spoke as much with his long, mobile ears as with his hands. He did note that the range of hair coloring went from dark brown to black and was glad that his own hair was black. Cazaks had an extremely stratified society. Hair color was an indicator of clan, and all the blond and auburn clans were from up north. Something as simple as that could set off a bloody confrontation. He hoped his gray eyes wouldn’t cause trouble.
Hunter watched as Trash followed the maitre’d around the room. It took a ridiculously long time to achieve anything on Caz. There seemed to be a tradition or ceremony for everything. Hunter glanced over at Darack. Despite the temperature regulators in his biosuit, the fine pelt on his face was dark with sweat. Hunter bit his lip, it probably meant something very important to the Cazak mind that Darack, an Altered Human designed for frozen wastes, had agreed to meet them on just about the hottest planet in the entire United Congress of Free Sentients. Well, Ranbek might feel hotter, but that was because of the humidity.
“Why do you look half-boiled?” Darack asked Hunter.
“I waited outside.”
Darack grunted in response. His eyes scanned the room as the maître’d took Trash from table to identical triangular table. The first few were apparently an affront, guessing from the expression on his partner’s face. Hunter noted the looks Trash got from his countrymen. The ones with fancy horn caps looked down their nose at him. The others mostly ignored him. All of them had the tip of the left ear pierced and sported charms in a variety of metals from steel to gold. At a glance, Hunter saw only triangular charms. Trash’s were circles of nickel. That meant something, too, probably to do with the fact that he was clanless.
“Cazaks,” Darack murmured. “They do love their little dramas. Do you think it’ll help if I faint from heat stroke?”
Hunter smiled. He could feel Darack’s amusement, so it was a false threat. Although they had a very good relationship with their handler, Hunter was always careful to not create ill will with the man who could order them off on onerous missions. Trash, on the other hand, was getting very angry. That wasn’t a good thing. Cazaks were known for their fiery, mercurial temperament, but this wasn’t the right time or place for a scene. They might be in the backend of a rural county, but that didn’t mean two off-worlders and a cranky Cazak wouldn’t be remembered. On the other hand, if Trash didn’t pitch a fit maybe they would stand out more.
“All male,” Darack murmured. “Have you ever seen a—“
“Don’t.” Hunter grabbed his arm tightly. He leaned close and spoke barely above a whisper. “Never speak of them in public if you don’t want to be gored and left on the nearest boulder for tralks to finish.” He sent a light mental touch to make sure that Darack was taking him seriously. Any discussion of females was not just a social taboo, it was blasphemy and would incense any Cazak to violence, which in all honesty didn’t take much.
Darack took a moment to adjust his biosuit. It was a close-fitting single-suit with a hood and calf-length cape. As he smoothed the cape a faint breath of cool air wafted past Hunter, making him realize how totally overheated he’d gotten. His own clothes were stiff from dried sweat.
“Thank you,” Darack murmured. Hunter felt a flush of embarrassment from his handler. Casual talk about females might be tolerated in the capital cities, but not out here in the deep desert. The women might run this planet, but it was done from behind high walls in complete isolation.
Darack’s cover was as a morally ambiguous business man with shady connections. That way he could meet with all of his undercover agents without drawing unwanted attention. Hunter and Trash were known in the black market circles that dealt with food, liquor and drugs. They had a reputation for tracking down goods, no questions asked. Over the years, he and Trash had nurtured relationships on most of the planets in the UCFS. However, Hunter didn’t know why they were in this café in particular.
Trash shook his head, and the charms that dangled from his left ear clanked. He lowered his head just a fraction, presenting his horns. Hunter tensed, but the maitre’d tipped his head back, exposing his throat in respect. Then he led Trash behind a screen. Hunter felt his partner’s approval, and a moment later, he reappeared to wave them over.
Hunter sat with a groan. The heat had drained him. The little alcove Trash had scored was slightly cooler than the main room and the pounding music was more muted. Trash ordered without consulting them, rattling off his demands in the local language, then shooing off the waiter with impatience.
“That should keep them busy,” Trash said, adding a flick of the ear to show his annoyance. The clank of charms indicated another layer of disdain. He would have used the one without charms, his silent ear, to indicate a different inflection.
Darack grunted. “I need to keep this short.”
“Not possible,” Hunter warned him in a low voice. “You can’t leave until we’re all done, or it’ll cause trouble.”
“Cazaks,” he grumbled. “Right. Can we get to business?”
Trash gave him a brilliant grin and opened both six-fingered hands in welcome. “Please. Begin.”
The meeting ended too quickly, practically an affront in Cazak society. Trash worried that their swift meal would attract too much attention, but he and Hunter were already off planet now. Sometimes his job required him to act very unlike a Cazak, which could be very exciting or disturbing. He flicked an ear in frustration. It was important to judge the reaction to an action, and here he was off on a new assignment without being able to do exactly that. Next time he was home, he’d avoid that whole continent.
The pilot’s seat squeaked as Trash leaned over the ship’s controls. He checked the timers for Inverted Space a second time before putting the console on automatic. His ship, Greygoss, hummed around him with its usual sound of efficiency. The immersion engines had a slightly deeper thrum than the real space engines. It was the only way he could tell the difference. With Hunter looking half-cooked, Trash had set the timers for only five hours, well under the maximum for immersion in Inverted Space. Living flesh took a toll in exchange for the ability to cross vast distances quickly, and Hunter was already somewhat compromised. There was no point in hurrying just to end up incapacitated when they got there.
He dialed down the interior temperature to cool off Hunter. Thinking of the meeting with Darack, he chuckled. “He wore a biosuit.”
Hunter was stretched out, bonelessly, in the co-pilot seat, long legs under the console. Strands of shaggy black hair stuck to his sweaty forehead. He cracked open one pale gray eye. “The man is covered in fur. What did you expect?”
Forcing stillness on his ears, Trash hid a smile. “Maybe you need a biosuit, too.”
“Are we going to be spending a lot of time on Caz?” Hunter asked with a slight frown. The raw skin on his forehead whitened along the creases.
Trash clanked his charms. “Not for this job.”
Hunter grunted an acknowledgement as he closed his eyes again. His skin was still too red, which made Trash feel guilty for insisting on the trip to Caz. “He didn’t need to give us this in person. We could have picked up orders next week on Port 1.”
“I guess he figured it couldn’t wait that long.”
Trash shivered. He inched the heat up a degree. They had a courier service box on Port 1 where Darack sent their orders. After they completed each assignment, they went there to collect the next. It was also where Trash and Hunter got their personal mail. Trash kept up a healthy correspondence with all of his made-clan brothers, and Hunter often had letters from his adopted family, so one more would not be noticed. “I feel like he was checking up on us,” Trash complained. “He didn’t need to take a trip out to Caz to tell us to track some altered wine shipments.” He flicked his charms in annoyance. There was no reason for Darack to need to see them in person. Trash preferred to keep any authorities as far away as possible. “When did he stop trusting us?”
“That’s not what that was about. We haven’t had a face to face with him since the last time we were on Central. Which was what? Two years ago?”
“A little longer, I think.”
Hunter waggled his fingers in a poor imitation of an ear flick. Trash was impressed at how quickly he had picked up the subtleties of ear-language. It was probably because he was a special Human.
“Where are we hopping to?” Hunter asked.
“Do you want to go through Le-Mmos or Port 5?”
Trash contemplated the pros and cons of either route. It was going to take them days to cross the rings and get over to Port 8. Caz was in the 4th Ring, the farthest civilized space from Central. They would need to cross three rings back toward Central and out the other side. That meant four hours recoup time for every nine hours of submersion in Inverted Space. Le-Mmos was a cold planet with not a lot going for it. On the other hand, he knew some brothers on Port 5. He might as well make their recoup time entertaining.
Hunter groaned as he stretched, raising long arms above his head. The movement sent a slight breeze past Trash thick with the smell of overheated Human.
“My world was hard for you,” Trash said softly. He regretted that Caz wasn’t as much fun for his partner as it was for him. Visiting home was always a treat.
“Now I know why we never go there in the summer.”
“It’s always summer somewhere,” Trash teased. But he knew that the trip down to the southern continent was dangerous for his Human partner. He just couldn’t be seen elsewhere at the moment, and he’d had to deliver on a few promises. Thankfully, Hunter didn’t ask for explanations.
“This is going to end up on Vermillion,” Hunter grumbled. “Black market liquor always ends up on Vermillion.”
“Good bet,” Trash agreed. Vermillion was a harsh planet with domed cities that specialized in entertainment. Their laws were slack. Any kind of entertainment could be found in at least one of the domes, and a handful of cash would get you access to even more. “But it won’t start there,” Trash added. “We need to check in with Rav. If there are new altered wines to be gotten, he’ll know where they’re coming from.” He flattened his ears. “Blah. Wine is bad enough. Altered wine must be awful.”
“Depends on what they’re altering it for. I doubt the taste is the important part.” Hunter shook his head. “It’s always about the high.”
Trash swung his silent ear in agreement. “Give me a bottle of cazul, and I’m a happy man.”
“Mmm.” Hunter pushed damp hair out of his wind-burned face. “Don’t suppose you picked up a new supply.”
“Am I not a resourceful man?” Trash asked with a grin.
“I’ll hit the shower, and you get the glasses.”
Locked in orbit above the Human-only planet of Terras 8, Sector Port 8 looked like any other--busy, crowded and noisy. It had been placed on the border between the first and second rings to work as a transfer point for people traveling in either direction. Passengers on long haul liners could disembark during the recoup time for shopping and people-watching. The corridors and galleries were filled with people from all over the galaxy.
Hunter clamped down on his barriers to keep out the surge of thoughts. He was the strongest psi-skilled on record, even though those records were classified. He’d been trained by the Alleviators of Elskynar in their bucolic enclave Clouded Vale, and crowds like this were always a trial until he got his bearings. Trash stayed close by, his shoulder brushing against Hunter’s arm as they wended their way through the marketplace.
Trash called greetings to a few of the venders. Hunter nodded to anyone he recognized. They didn’t come through this way very often. Terras 8, the planet below them, was exclusively Standard Human; therefore, Trash was barred from the planet. Hunter might have been able to visit, as long as they didn’t scan him. Once they discovered that he was Altered, he would be barred, too. The Port, however, was open to all, as required by the United Congress of Free Sentients. All of the non-Human ambassadors to Terras 8 were required to remain off-planet and were housed on the port. Ambassadors needed staff, and the staff brought their families, so the Port had sentients from every sector of the Four Rings in addition to enhanced security. Hunter felt more comfortable surrounded by this rainbow of galactic citizenry than a room full of Standard Humans.
As they left the lower market and headed to the upper levels, Hunter relaxed against the pressure of thousands of minds going about their own business. He shut out the fine points and sifted through the gross emotions of the combined mass. There were a few bumps of anger on the lowest levels and a concentrated ball of pain around the remediators’ suites. A slippery feel of subterfuge danced along the highest level where the ambassadors conducted business. In between was a normal mix of emotions in erratic doses. All in all, a typical day on a sector port.
Trash bulled through a clump of window-shopping Molthushans dragging Hunter in his wake. Hunter mumbled a few apologies to the startled females. Golden eyes narrowed under furred brows. Courtesy was essential among the felinoid Molthushans, and Trash had offended mightily. There were a few flattened ears and a tail swish or two, but thankfully no sign of claws or teeth. Hunter bowed to them before escaping into the restaurant after his partner.
Rav’s Stewpot was a dimly lit restaurant that offered basic meals for multiple species. The clientele varied from curious tourists to workers from the lower levels looking for home cooking. He also offered a few rarities to favored customers. Trash had been nurturing a relationship with him for years for the occasional black market leads he gave them.
Trash marched through the restaurant to a back table in a shadowy alcove. Hunter followed, tasting the room for trouble. A mix of citrusy Mycastrite spices and the aroma of roasting meat filled the room. Workers hunched over bowls and plates of simple, hearty food. A few heads turned, cautious eyes assessing the newcomers, but Hunter felt no threat.
They’d barely taken a table when a slender girl arrived with two glasses of cazul and a platter with bread and cheese.
“Not retha,” Trash grumbled after inspecting the cheese.
“Rav said to tell you this was from Lamerion,” the waitress said. She was small-boned and fair-haired, but the firm look she gave them said she’d worked this kind of job for a while.
“Huh.” Trash sniffed it. “Something new?”
“Enjoy,” she said with a polite nod and carefully blank face, before marching back toward the kitchens.
“Not cow. What do you think?” Trash asked Hunter.
Hunter stared after the girl. No, she was a woman. He could sense it in her sexuality and the weight of age in her emotions. She might be small, but she was definitely a mature woman. Something about her felt familiar and exotic at the same time. There was a tug, a persistent pull toward her that was hard to resist.
He tore his eyes away from the shadows where the girl had gone to look at his partner. Trash was grinning from ear to ear. “What?”
“Pretty, but not my type,” Trash teased.
Hunter blinked at him for a minute, waiting for his mind to catch up.
“You look like you’ve already had a few too many of these,” he said raising his glass of cazul. “What’s going on, Young Brother?”
“I don’t know.” Hunter looked across the room feeling the strain on his attention. “That woman…”
Trash waggled his rowdy ear, clanking the charms together. “Small, blonde, pretty. Is she Human?”
The question startled Hunter enough to release him from his daze. “I can’t tell.”
Trash leaned over to speak quietly. “That is very interesting. Do you think she’s Altered? Is she wearing some kind of pheromones? I’ve never seen you like this.”
Hunter turned the questions over in his mind. Most Altered Humans were easy to identify, like the Mackran with their fins and gills or the Wysoski, like Darack, with their pelts. Something clicked into place, and he understood the feeling of familiarity. “She has strong psi-skills.” There weren’t any registered methods for Altered Humans that produced the psi-skilled. He hadn’t heard of any new Alterations, but there were always illegal experiments like himself.
“She looks Human,” Trash murmured. “Although the eyes are unusual, yes?”
“Eyes?” Hunter frowned at him.
“Purple. Like a Kanderellen.”
“They all have white hair,” Hunter countered. He knew that woman was not from the planet Kanderel. That species had a definite feel about them that was absent in her.
“Her hair is pale,” Trash insisted.
“Blonde.” Hunter couldn’t help but turn to look for her. She was at the door to the kitchen. Watching him. “She is not from Kanderel.”
“Can they mate with Humans?” Trash asked, his tone only half serious.
Hunter didn’t answer. He couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“I see you have noticed Elaan.”
Hunter startled, unhappy to find that Rav had joined them. He hadn’t felt the man arrive. That was a deadly mistake in his profession. A shiver of unease flashed up his spine.
“Pretty, but…” Trash leered at Rav.
“Not right for you,” Rav finished, with a nod that said he was accustomed to Cazak tastes. The restaurant owner was Mycastrite with dark golden skin and eyes the color of Human blood. He had a fringe of amber-colored hair that circled a bald head. A prodigious paunch of a stomach hid his species’ skeletal peculiarities, making him look almost Human. Like most of his species, he was generically curious and a hoarder of knowledge. Unlike his people, he sold those snippets of information for cold cash. “She’s a bit of a lost soul, that child. But quite determined.”
“She’s not a child,” Hunter barked. The clank of Trash’s charms warned him he’d overstepped. “Sorry. Immersion headache,” he mumbled. Taking a moment, he rubbed his eyes, trying to free his mind from the peculiar fog blurring his thoughts.
“More cazul,” Trash suggested.
Hunter gulped down the entire glass, grimacing against the bite of the strong liquor.
“What is this cheese?” Trash asked Rav. “Are you trying to pass this off as retha? Because you can’t fool a Cazak’s nose.”
Hunter felt the deliberate change in direction and silently thanked Trash. He tried to concentrate on the mundane. Automatically, he accepted the cheese and bread that Trash handed him and ate it without tasting a thing. Something very odd had happened to him, and he needed to think about it. He mumbled an excuse and headed for the restroom for a minute alone. The back of the restaurant had a narrow hallway leading to the restrooms and Rav’s office. Hunter had to walk past the doors to the kitchen to get there. She was still there, watching him.
“Who are you?” she asked in a slow whisper as if she was just as puzzled by the connection.
Hunter couldn’t move. He couldn’t respond. Something about her had him stuck to the floor, dazed and dazzled. Maybe a perfume? His brain was moving slower than a glacier. All he could see were her eyes wide and questioning.
− Who are you? –
The words bloomed in Hunter’s mind. A gentle sending that contained such longing it made his throat ache. The pain released him from his thrall. “Hunter.”
“My name is Elaan,” she said, offering a hand in a decidedly Human mannerism.
Hunter was afraid to touch her for fear he would fall under her spell again. “What did you do to me?” The words came out harsher than he’d intended.
She flinched, a frown pinching her forehead. “You? What have you done to me?”
Terrance Crintaal was the proud Director of the Alleviator Enclave that was in residence at Clouded Vale, a grand title that meant next to nothing. The ancient stone buildings with their soaring columns and glittering mosaics gave a solemn gravity to the neatly landscaped grounds. From his office window, he could look out on a patchwork of cultivated fields that gently climbed to rolling hills surrounding the grand edifice. A smudge of darker green marked the beginning of a dense forest that had few roads, and none of them marked. Clouded Vale was isolated and difficult to find which allowed the Alleviators the privacy that they needed for their studies. Or so it was always said, to keep the curious away.
Terence shivered at the thought of nosey people poking around his home. A sad chuckle escaped him as he considered this massive pile of stone that had so quickly become home to him and his bedraggled brethren. It was all they had, and it had to be enough. He reminded himself of that almost daily.
There were reasons that the Alleviators did not allow strangers into the enclave, nor allow outsiders to conduct research on the premises. Only forty men and women lived in the massive stone keep. That number had only changed once in nearly a century, when young Hunter had been rescued and adopted. Outsiders were not allowed to see that the people making up that number hadn’t changed either. Only Hunter changed, and thankfully he had left before he started asking too many questions.
On a brighter note, Terrance had cause to be pleased with himself this afternoon. He had managed to put off a group of Mycastrites demanding access to the archives for some supposed research. Mycastrites were an exacting race, meticulous and insatiable in their search for knowledge. He knew that their research was more likely about the Alleviators themselves and less about the compendium of tomes that they guarded. Clouded Vale had been a treasure trove of rare texts long before the Alleviators had arrived.
Staring out at the grain fields, Terrance felt that old stirring in his soul. This was not what they were made for. Hiding away in the back end of nowhere disguised as something they were not. His heart ached with the deception, but he crushed that thought. They were free now. He could put up with anything to remain that way.
He reached out to the web of life that surrounded him for succor. The trees simmered with a long, low life force. The plants in the fields crackled, burning through their short season. Small animals and birds, insects, even the minerals in the dirt sparkled in his senses as they went about their daily business. The natural beauty around him was a reliable balm for his malaise. He should always be thankful for their placement on this particular planet.
Elskynar was a planet of healers−remediators and health workers−of all schools and species. Many remediators trained here specifically to have access to so many different disciplines. But there was only one group of Alleviators in the entire Four Rings of the galaxy. Only they managed the miraculous when all other attempts failed. From time to time, remediators and patients made the long trek through the forest to beg assistance. The nearest town, Blue Water, filled up with the ill or the curious looking for a miracle. The residents there had made it their responsibility to vet those seeking aid. Only a few found their way through the tall pines and twisting roads. The Alleviators did not teach, but they would take in anyone who made the arduous journey to be healed.
Clouded Vale was a venerable site, almost more myth than truth. The stones of the buildings had sat in their places for centuries. The few people who had remarked on the Alleviators’ furtive arrival on Elskynar were long dead now, and their tales along with them. Terrance touched the adamantine strength of the massive building stones, still strong after so long abandoned. Travel weary, they had found the long echoing halls and hundreds of rooms cobwebbed and furred with dust. Vines had covered the walls and weeds had infiltrated every exposed crack. They had rejuvenated and revitalized it all. Was that enough of recompense? To know that they had saved a place sacred to a race that had vanished long ago? Even the historians of Elskynar didn’t know the true story of Clouded Vale’s ancient beginnings. They were a mystery living in the shadow of a greater puzzle. Forty little peas rattling around in a mammoth pod that could house hundreds.
A discreet tap at the door pulled Terrance from his musing. “Enter.”
Laska, the enclave’s domestic manager, poked her head in. “There is a, um…wounded person…” She paused, unsure.
Terrance sighed. Every decision came down to him. “I’ll come.”