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Part Two

The chains around his wrists chafed, and Psychro wondered just how many unfortunate souls had worn them. He hated the concept of slavery, not just for himself, but others too. But then freedom had always been important to him, as he felt it should be for anyone, no matter what species' blood flowed through their veins. It was a basic desire common to everyone.

At the same time, it was the way it had been for centuries. Lunataks were used to taking planets, subjugating the population, using them for whatever they wanted. Now that the shoe was on the other foot, he wondered about that.

He was still a Lunatak, though, just born from two different moons. His father had been an Icewalker and his mother a Psion. Both were dead now, he thought grimly, but at least they wouldn't be wondering what had happened to their little boy. Psikaris would. The closest member of his family, he adored her more than words could ever express, even more than he had ever loved another living being. And there had been many beings he'd told he loved.

Would he ever experience love of any sort again? Yes. He was sure that this was not going to be the end of his life. He would figure out a way out of this place, wherever they were going, and free the others. A sudden feeling of weight hit him, a feeling of weighing significantly more than he had moments before. The Graviton Moon. They must have entered the atmosphere. It wasn't too bad once your body got used to the extra gravity. But at least now he knew roughly where he was. He had contacts across the moon, people who would be more than willing to help. Good, then. That was one question answered.

The ship seemed to continue to descend for a while, before coming to a halt. He caught Myrik staring at them intently. What was his game? Why was he in this? Footsteps, raised voices. Realization dawned. Inspectors. It was customary for someone from the space port to inspect all incoming ships. He started to cry out as the voices came closer but found his mouth unwilling to make a sound. Myrik. The wretched telepath was controlling his thoughts, preventing him from calling for help.

As the footsteps faded away, the Psion stood and walked over to them. "We've been given clearance to head to our base of operations. It really is a shame the inspector didn't recognize the false wall, isn't it. The four of you will be taken to your new homes. Chedra and Black Tiger will follow Raven. Mind Grind, you will follow Drell. Psychro, you're all mine. You might as well say your goodbyes, because I don't think you'll be seeing any of them again." Myrik tapped on the door and it slid open. Their Icewalker guard entered first and freed the prisoners one by one.

Though Psychro wanted to fight, he couldn't. His muscles refused to co-operate as he watched the trio slowly walk out of the room. "Do I have to do this the hard way?" Myrik asked, stepping aside. Psychro shook his head. He was beaten. For now.

"This isn't really your department, you know." Cameo stared briefly at the Darkling woman on his monitor. It was a common refrain from the local law enforcement people, and he was starting to get tired of it. Truthfully, they were right. He was 'captain of the fleet' and not a law enforcement officer. But since the latest incident, and two more that had been reported, had happened in the space ways it sort of was. More to the point, Queen Luna herself had agreed to give him licence to handle the investigation. He recalled the conversation well, she had been insinuated that she wouldn't be able to get any other work out of him anyway so he might as well handle it.

She also wanted him to work with another high ranking official who would be less biassed in the matter. If the scope of it turned out to be as vast as he suspected then he might not be able to keep his temper in check. Cameo had recommended Nitro, as he was already versed in the events and had a mental image of their prime suspects. "Luna made it my department, so feel free to file a complaint with the queen," he said, as calmly as he could.

"I will. The Dark Moon has always handled its own affairs. For the time being I'll transmit the data," the woman said. She shut off the communication from her end. True to her word, though, recent missing persons reports began coming in.

Cameo rubbed his temples. For the time being he was operating out of his home, his home terminal was as good as any in the empire, and he felt a little better knowing that Psikaris was safe. He skimmed the data as quickly as he could, marking the ones that might be relevant and crossing out others. Most of the moons were being largely co-operative. Justice was justice, and if Lunataks were harming other Lunataks then most seemed content to be on the side of the throne in the matter.

Another hybrid crossed his eyes. This one last seen going into a restaurant's bathroom. A Darkling/Avian cross. The waiter initially thought they had skipped out on a bill but found that the victim's wallet was still in his coat pocket at the table. That brought the possible total of missing hybrids to sixty-four. Of course, there were plenty of non-hybrids who might have been taken by the same group, and doubtless there were many others that hadn't been reported.

He tapped a few buttons on his console and his secretary's face appeared. "Any luck finding the Vertis yet?" he asked.

"Nothing yet, sir. Still working on it." He heard the concern and smiled wanly to let her know it was appreciated.

"Thanks. Keep me informed." He stretched and walked across the room to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of juice. He was at a bit of a stalemate. There were only a handful of probable connections, and the local law enforcement had run into dead-ends on each one. The truth was, whoever was behind this was very good. Sirilus' catching them had been their first slip up. He wondered what the ship logs on the other two vessels would say, and what Captain Shiner knew.

The craft lurched as it came to a rest for a second time. Standing with the other prisoners at the door, Black Tiger watched nervously as it opened. They'd arrived at some kind of warehouse. Crates were stacked around, along with a few barrels. The nearest set of crates appeared to have been moved aside to reveal a trap door. There was a flight of stairs leading down, guarded at the top and bottom by gun wielding Gravitons. "Take a last look through the window. That's the last time any of you will see the sun," Myrik said with delight.

Black Tiger looked where he was pointing. At the top of the warehouse were a series of windows, with the sun blazing through. It warmed the building to an almost stifling degree, and was a little bright for her preference. Darklings lived on a moon where the jungle cover barely allowed for any light to seep through. Her people had become accustomed to it, and developed infrared vision in exchange.

A none-too-gentle shove by Raven propelled her towards the trap door. Chedra already walked ahead of her, taking the steps one by one, reluctantly descending beneath the surface. When they all reached the bottom of the stairs the trap door slammed shut, and dimly she could hear the crates being moved back over top. Overhead lights lit up the tunnel then, showing a heavy vault door. "Ingenious, isn't it?" Myrik said, as they crossed into the vault. File cabinets lined one wall, and a desk and chair sat on the same side. "On the off chance an inspector finds this room they'll think it's where we keep our old records. So your hopes of being saved are non-existent." He gestured to one of the guards and the floor began to sink lower.

After about a minute of steady lowering a door appeared. Beyond it was a smooth rocky tunnel that branched quickly in two directions. It was here that Psychro and Myrik went in separate directions. They took a hall that seemed to have been covered and plastered. There was carpet on the floor, and Black Tiger thought she saw artwork hanging up. For her, Chedra and Mind Grind there were no creature comforts. They were led to a wide open area that was filled with guards. They wore heavy gold uniforms, with black markings on the chest to denote rank. One with a peculiar star pattern on his received documentation from Drell and skimmed over it.

The single door out of this security checkpoint opened and they were ushered into a narrow corridor. It was in this corridor that Drell and Mind Grind peeled off from the remaining three, passing through into a large room. Raven urged her to continue with a second shove. She knew that she and Chedra could take out Raven if they worked together, but they would never get past the guards, especially the way Chedra was hobbling. And even if they ran past they might not be able to figure out how to get to the surface. A short walk, maybe forty feet or so, they came to another door. Raven deactivated a force field over this one and gestured. "Your new home. You'll get to work on the next rotation."

This room was sparse. Thin mattresses dotted the floor. A plain stone table where, she supposed, they would eat their meals, and a curtained area for washroom facilities. A handful of women were sleeping on the mattresses. Black Tiger saw one Icewalker/Jackalman cross who appeared to be dead, so thin and frail, and then she coughed. That would be her in two or three months, the bleak thought arrived. Not knowing what else to do, she followed Chedra over to a pair of unoccupied mattresses and settled down. Softly she began to cry.

The corridor went for several feet, made a sharp turn, and Psychro began seeing doors. Myrik prodded him onwards across the soft carpeting. Though he didn't have much time to appreciate them, he saw the artwork along the walls. Fancy landscape portraits and images of battles. A collection of Jackalmen playing some sort of card game hung across that of a prostrate mixed race woman.

At the end of this corridor was another security checkpoint with eleven doors. Ten were blocked by force fields, three had occupants in them already and a fourth stood open for him. Psychro had a funny feeling that he didn't want to know what was through the last door, but that he would find out. "This is where we keep our special prisoners," Myrik explained, as casually as if he were talking about his lunch. Psychro noticed that the three were casting furtive glances towards the Psion, hoping to somehow avoid his gaze. "Why don't you make yourself comfortable. I'll be by later to see you. If you have a change of heart, just let these fine gentlemen know."

Psychro counted the guards. Two Gravitons, a Darkling and a Royal. Five on one weren't good odds, and four wouldn't be much better when Myrik left. He would get out, somehow. Quietly he stepped into his cell, consisting only of a pail and a bed.

"We deedn't think anything of eet," a stout Graviton, and weren't they all, named Beef Teeth said. One of the ships that had experienced a similar blackout had already left for Third Earth, but this senior crew member had requested shore leave to attend a family wedding. Graviton weddings were lavish affairs, almost a week long affair of feasting, dancing and more alcoholic beverages than one could shake a stick at. "We all fell asleep. When we woke up we found that one of the escape pods was missing, and so was Kraedon. We assumed he just deedn't want to be stopped. We never figured out how he knocked all out, though."

"And you didn't detect any other ships in the area?" Cameo asked.

"I don't theenk so. Sorry?"

"Don't worry about it, Beef Teeth." That didn't help much. Either their attacker was already on the ship, was on a very small ship nearby, or their assumption about this Kraedon was accurate. "What do you know about this Kraedon? Family background and such."

"He's only half Graviton, the other half ees Psion, but he seemed like a nice guy. I deedn't get to talk to him very much. Kept to himself for the most part. I theenk he was going to Third Earth to help with building a new power plant," the Graviton said.

"You've been very helpful. Thanks," Cameo said, making notes. He'd chosen a very public café for the meeting, with his security detail nearby keeping watch. He hated having to take all these precautions for his personal safety, but it was necessary. But realistically they couldn't protect every single hybrid on the moons. The Lunatak population on the whole numbered in the millions. How many people were out there that had mixed heritage?

He glanced again at his watch. Nitro had promised to come as soon as he could. He had some personal business to attend to, he said. He had hoped that it wouldn't take more than an hour or two to sort out. Mentally Cameo did the calculations. Nitro's ship had left the Psion Moon, where the Darkling ship had been headed, three hours ago. The soonest he might be able to get back then was another four. The wait was aggravating, but there was little he could do about it. What he really needed was some good news about the location of the Vertis.

Mystan reached out with one hand to steady himself against the wall. It felt disorienting, like a piece of him was missing. Toran, the eldest of the high priests, had conducted the psychic block himself. The elders had opened their minds for a communal discussion, and during it he relayed everything that had happened onboard the Vast Belly and his ideas and recommendations. No one recognized the Psion in the image, but all agreed that assisting the investigation would be good for them. As expected, too, they were angered at the thought of such a powerful Psion who was not acting in accordance with their wishes.

But even his news and suggestions were not enough. Mystan had failed them, had embarrassed the Psion people, and upset their god. He had known that nothing would change his fate and accepted their judgement with dignity.

If only he'd known how badly it would affect him. Mystan was so accustomed to using his telekinesis for his day to day activities that not being able to touch it was throwing him off. "We are sorry, Mystan," Toran said aloud. "Perhaps keeping an eye on the proceedings will distract you from your loss."

He raised an eyebrow. Were they asking him to work with Cameo? Another elder, Psipe, nodded. "Nitro of the Icewalkers has been asked to participate. We feel that our moon should be represented as well."

Nitro. It would be that man. He would doubtless take great delight in rubbing in Mystan's loss, knowing that there was little he could do in any kind of a physical confrontation. Still, Nitro wasn't particularly bright, perhaps a more logical mind would be of service. "As you wish," he said, with a bow.

She dreamed of a happier time, standing in an auditorium, watching her father's promotion ceremony. He'd beamed at her, standing off to the side with the rest of her family. Tycho, then the king, shook his head steadily. The king moved through the family, thanking each for coming. She remembered his radiant smile, the kindness in his face.

Black Tiger's eyes opened, realizing her hand wasn't being shaken but examined by an Icewalker woman whose blue skin colouring was almost a pinkish colour. She looked as haggard as any of the women here, so she must be a prisoner. "It's human," the woman said, catching the curious look. "My mother was with Control. My name's Merma, I was a doctor before..." She looked pained, as though reliving the memory of her capture.

Human. That explained the colouring. Now that she'd said it, Black Tiger could see that the typical white hair that Icewalkers had was a very light yellow. Merma was taking care of the small cuts on her hands. "What's the point?" she asked. "We're going to die anyway."

Merma gazed up at her for a minute and brushed a strand of hair from her face. "Not religious, are you? We have to have hope and faith. This many of us going missing? Someone's bound to notice eventually. Help's coming, and I for one intend on being alive when it comes. I've got family out there somewhere, they need me, and I want to see them again. Now, I've been here two weeks, so I should give you a heads up on what's about to happen. The first rotation is almost done, so the guards will usher us all into the hall. We walk single file to wherever they think there's Caramium. We mine until we drop. There are no breaks, no talking, nothing but work. Some of the guards are more strict than others. Some are just looking for an excuse. And whatever you do, don't draw attention to yourself. There're worse fates here than a beating."

As Merma finished her ministrations, the door opened and guards clad in gold outfits, covering their bodies head to toe, entered. "That's to protect them from the radiation, the bastards," she whispered.

"All right. Rotation 2. On your feet," a distinctly Icewalker voice announced. Black Tiger nervously stood and followed her fellow women out the door. Sure enough she saw a group of haggard looking women huddled along the wall. They were exhausted, and two of them were bleeding from fresh wounds. She was led at a brisk pace through tunnels and eventually divided into a group of three. She didn't know either the woman or the man assigned to them and she wouldn't have a chance to find out. The man, a Graviton crossed with a Lion, was handed a pickaxe while the two women were given the task of removing the rubble and searching for the pale blue crystals.

Entering his bedroom, Myrik placed his laptop on his desk. It was, he thought, a nicely furnished room. He took the time to water his pair of potted plants, ferns he'd had imported from the Darkling Moon. They didn't need much light, given their place of origin, and seemed to thrive down here. But then, so did he. Out there, in that big world, were people who didn't approve of his hobbies. People were toys to him, curiosities to be used and discarded when he was done with them. A quick glance at the woman in the corner of the room told him that she knew it too. A collar around her neck was secured to the wall by a long chain. It gave her minimal freedom, without giving her ideas.

He crossed over to her and stroked her head. Myrik could sense the hatred, but didn't care. She did as she was told or else she would be sent to the mines, and she knew it well. He'd sent her there for one day, just to show her what could still happen. She was a Psion/Tiger cross he'd seen come through for interrogation. Too delicate to survive long in there, he was captivated by her beauty. She had adjusted to her role so quickly that he had decided to spare her and keep her for his own. He wasn't interested in the carnal yet, though images of Psychro flashed through his head. He poured the rest of the water from his jug into her bowl, the same kind of bowl one would leave out for a pet. One day, he thought, she would snap and try something foolish. He looked forward to it.

"Anything yet?" The voice startled him. His pet hadn't warned him of the visitor, so he backhanded her. Discipline finished, he turned and saw Crackle, the leader of the operation, waiting impatiently by the door. He was a Graviton who seemed wider than any Graviton should be. But then, weight equalled status on this moon.

"We brought three more for the mines, plus Psychro. I've barely started working on him, but I know his type very well. He and I are very alike, in fact. I'll have what you want soon."

"See that you do." Crackle knew better than to demand faster results. They weren't on a strict time table, and he was the best telepath available. While Myrik could, in theory, rip information from his prey, he preferred other methods. Crackle would tolerate the process for now. Myrik knew that there might come a point where he wouldn't be afforded the luxury. He glanced back at Fantasy, rubbing her face and scowling. Myrik had an idea.

The work was arduous. Though Black Tiger considered herself to be in reasonably good shape, her muscles were protesting loudly. Back on the Dark Moon it was expected that the young people would spend a few days a month out on patrols. The moon was vast, and intruders could be anywhere. She been on a few of these jaunts, had even helped catch a Control officer who had decided to take a pit stop.

She wondered if the woman had been Merma's mother. Black Tiger couldn't remember too much about her anymore, just that she'd been terrified when she realized she was surrounded. Black Tiger was terrified now. The large pieces of rock that her companion was producing were heavy, and she and the Darkling/Psion woman were having difficulty pushing the cart to the refuse pile. She had paused, once, to mop the sweat from her brow and earned a nasty remark from one of the golden suited guards.

The guards were everywhere. Merma was right, some could be strict. The nasty remark was better than what some were getting. Another pair pushing a cart of rock stumbled and their guard fired his weapon at their feet, laughing as they scrambled to keep going. Numbly she scooped up another stone and deposited it in the bin. Her hands ached, the cut on her palm had opened up again, she supposed it always would. Suddenly three months sounded too long. This was no way to live, even if Merma wanted her to keep up her spirits.

Psychro watched the guards, there was little else to do while in captivity. There were six of them in total. One, bearing the same fancy star shape, was sitting with a book in his hands. Four were playing an elaborate card game, while the last was pacing slowly, peering into each cell as he went. In his mind he imagined breaking free. He would wait until the pacer was in front of his cell, grab the man's gun and shoot for the leader. Without him the others would be a little more disorganized and might buy him an extra second or two.

It wouldn't happen. Not while there was a force field in place. He couldn't see the electronics well enough to even speculate on how it worked or how he might disable it. He couldn't make out the other prisoners very well either. They seemed to be in alternating cells, so only the one furthest from him was entirely visible. It appeared to be a man of some kind, who had moved his bed away from the wall and seemed to be cowering behind it. Hopefully the man was digging an escape tunnel, but Psychro wasn't holding his breath.

The leader of the guards picked up his radio and listened intently for a minute. He stood and gestured to two of the card players to join him. "Step back from the door," he said, staring straight at Psychro with his gun pointed at his chest. Once the force field dropped the other two moved in beside him and took him by the arms. "Myrik wants you brought to his room, poor bastard."

A prisoner whimpered at the name and he wondered what kind of hold Myrik had over these people. He'd seen the injuries on the three others on the shuttle ride over, was it simply fear of assault or more? Certainly a telepath like him would learn easily of your fears. What did Psychro fear? The guards led him down back down the hall he'd come from and stopped in front of a polished door. Myrik's name, now that he looked close, was stencilled on the doorframe. One opened the door while the other two shoved him in. It closed with a click, locking him inside.

While Mind Grind had experienced pain before, this was excruciating. He thought he was being clever, refusing to work until he spoke to his family, but they had taken him to the security checkpoint, and then the Icewalker had come. The woman, known only as Frostarn, hated hybrids with every fibre of her being. She targeted his left leg while the other guards pinned him down, alternating fire and ice starting with the individual toes and working her way up his tender thigh.

"Scum like you doesn't have family, you don't deserve it. You don't deserve to live, either, but some people happen to think you have a use. I know many unpleasant ways to kill a man, ways that make working in the mines look like a picnic. So if your use to us ends..." her voice trailed off. He nodded vigorously as the guards stepped back. Slowly he got to his feet, the left leg threatening to give way on him. "Send him back to his rotation. If he doesn't keep up, bring him back to me."

Myrik wasn't in the room, or else he was hiding somewhere, that much was certain. It was almost a little baffling to him. But Psychro wasn't afforded much time to consider this as a purple skinned woman with thick black stripes, caught his attention. She was sitting in the middle of the Psion's bed, looking at him. She was covered, barely, with a robe that hung just loose enough to show her assets. He looked at her curiously. She was obviously another prisoner, but why was she here? "Hey there, the name's Psychro," he said, trying to be pleasant. It was difficult under the circumstances, as his anger simmered beneath the surface, but this woman wasn't the cause of it.

"I'm called Fantasy," the woman replied. She had a beautiful voice, which went with her flawless body, but he caught something in it. Fear. How could anyone harm such a beautiful woman, he wondered, how could someone put such fear into them? Fantasy stretched her arms up wide, causing the robe to scandalously expose a little more of her ample bosom. His eyes stared and he saw the smile on her face. The smile, at least, seemed to be legitimate.

"Where's Myrik?" he asked, and saw an involuntary flinch.

Fantasy bit her lower lip for a second. He could see her thinking, trying to figure out what to do next. "He's not here. He's not going to be, either. Myrik thinks that you and he got off on the wrong foot. He thinks you might be more open to discussion if..." her voice faltered, as though trying to recall his words, "you experienced the pleasures of the flesh."

The concept was mind-boggling. Myrik thought he could be bought off with a beautiful woman? Admittedly, were the circumstances different and she were coming to him of her own free will, he would seriously consider it, but not this way. She crooked a finger at him and patted the bed. "You don't really want this, do you," he said flatly.

Her shoulders drooped. "You are handsome, but this isn't how I do things normally. I prefer to do things properly. Nice restaurant, fine wine, sports car, satin sheets."

And I bet you never pay for any of it, Psychro thought to himself. She was very tempting. But then he thought of Chilla, back on Third Earth. If he indulged, she would be furious. "I'm sorry. You can tell Myrik I declined." He turned for the door, wondering if the guards were still out there. Would they let him out?

He heard the sound of footsteps, running, and saw Fantasy. "No! Please!" she said urgently. The robe had opened completely, and only the situation prevented him from ogling. "Listen, if I fail Myrik he'll punish me. All I have to do is sleep with you, nothing more. I don't have to get you to talk, or anything. Just simple sex." She ran a hand through his hair, trying to pull him in for a kiss.

"Fantasy," he began. She turned away, and he heard a choked sob. His heart went out to her. What had that monster done to her? It was his turn to spin her around to face him, and she buried her face in his chest.

"You don't understand. I can handle it when he's in a good mood, but not when he's angry. I tried to kill myself once and it was the most horrible thing ever. He tore my mind apart with his, making me relive every single painful memory I've ever felt. And then he threatened to do worse. With Myrik, you want the beatings. The bruises heal, but the mental scars never do." She shuddered and pulled her head back. "Don't make me force you."

Bile began to bubble up, fresh hatred for this Myrik. He could see how sincere she was in her words, he knew that she had been through a lot and couldn't bear to make her go through more of it. "Ordinarily, I promise my lovers an incredible night. I don't think that's going to be possible here, but I'll do my best," he assured her, praying that Chilla would understand. He leaned down and kissed her tenderly, tasting the tears on her lips as her supple body pressed against his. He felt her natural warmth contrasted with his cool skin and held her tight.

True to his word, he carried her to the bed and tried every trick he knew. Things that drove average women wild warred against the threat of punishment. Psychro's lips and fingers touched her intimately, neck, breasts, stomach, thighs, vagina, and every point in between. She was close, but not close enough to go over the edge. After what felt like an hour she tugged on his hair. "I don't think it's going to happen," she murmured, smiling wanly to let him know the effort was appreciated. They both knew who was at fault here.

He mounted her, managing to climax, and rolled on to his side. He saw the relief in her face, and brushed her hair back. "When we get out of here, we're trying that again. Properly," she said.

The streets of Lunis, capital city of the Lunatak empire, were strangely quiet, Cameo thought to himself, or was it his imagination? A flicker of movement down an alley caught his attention, but closer inspection revealed it to be nothing more than a newspaper caught in the gentle breeze. He was reasonably certain that he was safe for the time being. He was flanked by security personnel and out in the open. But then, how many people had been caught by surprise by whomever was doing this?

He was to receive a pair of assistants shortly, too. Nitro and Mystan would be arriving on separate ships. The extra sets of eyes would be nice in a way, but they would hamper him too. Unlike many, Cameo liked working alone. He could do things his way without having to balance the opinions of others. Especially two people who weren't used to taking orders. How would they behave under him?

It didn't matter. Luna had told him to find help, and help was finding him. They would be taking the same ship Nitro was arriving on to rendezvous with Captain Shiner. Word had finally reached the mercenary that the Lunataks wanted to speak with him. He was busy at a Plundarr outpost in the next system, but was amenable to meeting with them.

Cameo reached the space dock, resisting the temptation to see Erillis and pester her for more information. The Royal Lunatak had been so much help lately. She was sympathetic, but he got the vague impression he was annoying her with his frequent calls. Besides, Mystan's ship was arriving. Inspectors were filtering in. Cameo walked straight up to the gathering at the base of the ramp and waited for Mystan to emerge.

The Psion, when he did exit, looked much different. His priesthood robes were gone, replaced with a simpler robe that the average Psion might wear. He looked tired, and he walked with a less confident gait. Still, there was life in him, his logical mind obviously going over the details as he approached. "Once Nitro gets here I'll brief you both. He shouldn't be long."

The bed was comfortable. Soft and smelling of wild flowers. Psychro stared fixedly at the ceiling, his hand draped loosely over Fantasy's shoulder. Neither saw the need to move, taking comfort in the friendliness of one another. That's all the sex had been. An act between two friends caught in a bad situation. Non-consensual at best, but with no blame towards the other. If they'd met in a bar somewhere, they would likely have found themselves in this very same position.

Chilla would understand. He had unofficially promised to remain completely faithful to her, but these were particular circumstances. As stern as she could be, she would realize that he hadn't done it out of lust or betrayal, he'd done it to spare Fantasy's life. Right, and she would believe that too. Maybe it was better off if he didn't mention this incident.

On the other hand, she would be asking questions. He was scheduled to arrive on Third Earth soon, however many days they'd been here for. She would wonder what had happened, and this would be a difficult detail to leave out.

The door clicked open. For half a second he thought it might be Chilla, but then saw Myrik. He started to get out of bed to attack, but found his limbs unwilling to move again. Fantasy didn't budge, he noticed. Why not? With Myrik's attention on himself, she had the chance. Even with his threats, it had to be eating at her to see him standing there. "Bravo, Fantasy. I'll make sure you're given a little extra food tonight. To your spot." Myrik tossed her the robe she'd shed, as Fantasy crossed to the corner. She didn't move, staring up at him, as he locked her collar back around her throat. Then he turned back to Psychro. "Perhaps I should get one of those for you."

Psychro growled low. "Only if I can choke you with it."

The telepath walked over to the bed and sat next to where Psychro crouched. His muscles quivered, trying to break the telepathic hold, trying to coax them into moving for just a second. "I am hurt. Did you not enjoy my gift? You and I are alike, you know."

The colourful epithet Psychro used, implying that Myrik had the intelligence of a Mutant and suggesting what he thought of the gift, was cut off with a telepathic command. "Now is not the time for you to talk. Like I was saying, we are alike. We both enjoy the natural beauty of a woman, and the pleasures they can give. You give me what I want and I will give you what you want. Dozens of beautiful women, paraded in front of you. You would get your pick of the bunch and live like a king. Better than a king, in fact. Everything your heart desires. Fantasy over there, she's just a sample of the delights that could be yours."

Unable to move or talk, there was nothing he could do but listen. It revolted him being this vulnerable in front of Myrik, and to be so misunderstood. So many knew of the womanizing, but he always hoped that the relationship would be 'the one.' Not that there wasn't a level of temptation in the offer, but Psychro preferred the women come to him voluntarily. What was the point if they didn't. Any idiot could force themself on another living being, but to get them to open up because they wanted to took a gentleman.

"Perhaps you don't yet grasp my offer. I'm going to get what I want either way, why not get something out of it for yourself while you're at it." Myrik leaned close, brushing his lips across Psychro's. "You need to learn your place. Take a tip from Fantasy, I could have her here pleasuring me without complaint, and do you know why? Because she knows that she is a worthless piece of meat and I am her master. She knows that when I'm happy, her life is happy. When I'm mad, she gets hurt. You'll learn that too. Get dressed, the guards will take you back to your cell."

Myrik stood and left the room. As soon as the door closed, the psychic hold released. Psychro bolted for the door but found it locked again. Angrily he overturned Myrik's desk, smashing the assorted decorations. Then he walked over to where Fantasy sat. She looked happy to see such a reaction, perhaps recalling her own days of freedom before her will had been bent. "I promise you. I will get you out of here and we will kill Myrik." He dressed himself and waited for the guards to come.

"All right, freaks. Back to the barracks." Black Tiger was never so happy to hear four words. She didn't know how long a rotation was, but suspected it was at least eight hours of intense work. She and her two companions and collected a lot of useless rubble and hadn't found any of the Caramium. One of the other teams had found a small quantity, or so she heard one of the guards say. She had, she reflected as she trudged along the corridor, done better than some of the others. More were wounded, including Mind Grind whom she saw a glimpse of before the men and women were separated. Sure, her hand had opened up again but all things considered it wasn't bad. Her muscles would ache in the morning though, for sure.

The barracks door was opened and a group of guards placed loaves of bread and a pitcher of filthy looking water on the stone slab. A brief scuffle broke out around the meagre supply of food, until Merma organized everyone. There was always one of those, Black Tiger thought, as she slipped off to her mattress. The Icewalker/Jackalman woman was gone. She hadn't been able to get up for her rotation, and Black Tiger envied her. For that woman the torment was over. Chedra returned to her bed, and Black Tiger could see that she looked equally exhausted, her back curled as she hungrily devoured her portion.

It did smell good, but the temptation to just let death come was too strong. Black Tiger lay flat on her mattress and tried to will it on. "Come child. You have to eat," Merma said, shaking her. "Remember what I said about hope." She didn't want to, but knew the woman wouldn't leave until she did. Grudgingly, Black Tiger walked over to the table. The water tasted warm, and faintly of urine, and the bread was stale. Still, it tasted better than she expected any such food would. She took her food back to the mattress, under Merma's watchful eye, and ate quietly.

There was little conversation, a few heated words about the guards, but everyone was too tired to do much. That was probably the point. Prisoners who were exhausted were less likely to cause trouble, she thought. Maybe that was what she needed. Cause enough trouble and maybe they would grant her wish. It was something worth thinking about.

To say that Cameo was less than thrilled to see that Nitro had brought Nuiane with him was an understatement. All they were missing was a representative from the Graviton Moon and all the moons would be involved. Politics were annoying.

He had to admit, though, that he rather enjoyed being on an Icewalker ship again. He had nothing against the Royal ships, but he'd grown up on the Ice Moon, had been a pilot for many years before his sudden promotion. It was these ships where he felt most comfortable, so much so that he was almost tempted to go to the hangar and see the smaller fighter crafts.

They were on the bridge now. A captain's seat, with three officers seated in front of him or her. They could see the Vertis on the view screen, orbiting a small planet with a substantial military installation on the surface. Cameo wondered why the Mutants had set up shop here, and what they needed the Vertis for. A mercenary like Shiner didn't come cheap, or so he'd heard, so it must be something big. "This is Captain Icewin of the Icewalker ship 'Snowblind'. Do you read me, Vertis?"

An image of the notorious mercenary appeared. He stared through his monocle as though they should be paying for the privilege of merely speaking with him. "I read you Snowblind. What is your business?"

"I've brought Queen Luna of the Lunatak empire's representative," Icewin said, gesturing behind him where Cameo and the others stood.

"Which one is it? I don't have time for all these formalities, time is money."

"I am. Cameo of House Mymekon. Perhaps we could meet in person. Luna has agreed to some compensation for your precious time," Cameo said, trying hard not to sound sarcastic. More politics, he thought to himself. But a man like Shiner was motivated by the size of his wallet, and the image certainly seemed to perk up a bit at the mention.

"Very well. I will meet you in the hangar. We can conduct our business when you arrive." The image ended abruptly.

As they walked through the corridors and down the flight of stairs to the Snowblind's hangar, Cameo wondered what they would find out. If Shiner's hands weren't dirty, in this particular matter anyway, then they were paying a small fortune for what amounted to sensor logs and an annoying conversation. And that was assuming that they could rely on his information.

Nitro was obviously thinking along the same lines, trailing after him. "Be nice if someone hadn't lost their telepathy," he said, pointedly glancing at Mystan. Fortunately the Psion wasn't inclined to rise to the bait.

"We might not need it," Cameo replied quickly. "Shiner doesn't know what happened. All he'll see is a Psion and assume we're checking his honesty. Mystan will ensure that Captain Shiner thinks hard about what he tells us."

"True enough. Besides," Mystan said slowly. "I've spent enough time reading people. I should be able to tell when he's lying." They boarded a shuttle and left for the Vertis.

What was their game, Shiner wondered as the screen turned to black. It was too co-incidental to be running into these people so soon after the business with Drell and his compatriots. They'd been detected by the Vast Belly, as planned, a decoy while the real trouble hit. Captain Shiner had played this game before, he played it at least once a month with the Interplanetary Control Force. He was a mercenary, one of the best, and he got that reputation by learning the rules and never betraying a client.

Flanked by a quartet of guardsmen he formulated a plan. This 'Cameo' didn't look too bright, but there had been one of those blasted Psions in the background. No doubt Cameo wanted a face to face meeting so that the Psion could read his mind. Well, Shiner had learned how to steel his mind, guard his emotions.

And if things turned rough, he had the support of the Mutant outpost below. They were buying some very fine weapons off a third party through him and wouldn't want anything to happen to their cache. In fact, they might even relish the opportunity to try out some of the new weapons from his supplier. It all assumed he was unable to con Cameo.

"Welcome aboard. I believe you were talking about business?" Captain Shiner asked, gesturing as the trio of Lunataks disembarked. Cameo trusted him even less now that they were face to face. There was just something untrustworthy about the man, even though Lunataks often acted as mercenaries themselves.

"I was. Yesterday a ship of ours was attacked." Cameo watched for reactions, he didn't see anything that might indicate guilt yet. He wasn't very good at this kind of thing. He liked to trust people, think the best of them, in this respect Mystan and Nitro would be much better suited. A mental grudging thanks to Luna was in order. "A number of our people were abducted, and your ship was detected as being in the area shortly before the incident."

"Are you accusing me of kidnapping? I am a mercenary. I don't have to resort to such petty acts." Cameo rolled his eyes. That, at least, he was able to pick out. Blustering usually indicated that he knew something. He didn't think that Shiner was directly responsible, but he certainly was involved somehow. Still, they wouldn't find Psychro or the others through accusations.

"Not at all. We just wanted to see if your scanners picked up anything that ours might have missed," he replied.

This seemed to appease the captain. He smoothed his jacket with one hand and shrugged. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to let you take a quick look at our logs. We really are in a bit of a hurry, so we'll have to make it quick."

And profitable, Cameo mentally added. At this point they needed the extra information, anything to move the investigation along. There were no ransom notes, nothing of any kind, which created all sorts of unpleasant scenarios for Cameo's mind.

Mystan stared at the back of Captain Shiner as the latter took them up to the Vertis' bridge. He wasn't used to doing things this way. Mystan was much more accustomed to doing a surface scan of a person's mind. Despite the shred of bravado he'd allowed himself earlier, Nitro was right. A telepath would be very useful, and his observational skill less so. It didn't take a genius to realize that Shiner was up to something, though. He was willing to bet that there would be a problem with the logs, too.

"Here we are," Shiner said, arriving at his station. He began entering commands, calling up the visual record of the passing of the Graviton freighter. Sure enough, by some amazing co-incidence, the camera was pointed away from freighter for most of the passing. It seemed enough to work with, though.

Mystan took a slow walk around the room while Cameo and Shiner negotiated a price for the logs, observing the assorted crew members going about their routines. They were engrossed and barely paid him any attention. He did get a handle on where the camera controls were, watching as a crew member adjusted the view screen. Which meant that this one, or whomever had been at this station, would have had to make sure the cameras weren't pointed in the right direction. "All right, Mystan. We have what we came for," Cameo called out. "Let's not keep the good captain any longer. Time is money."

"Indeed it is. It's been a pleasure doing business with you."

There was activity outside his cell. Psychro looked up to see a Psion/Royal being dragged from one of the other cells and into the mysterious other room by an Icewalker woman. He was struggling against her to little effect. Finally the door slammed shut. Moments later he heard raised voices and a pained cry. Even the guards at the table winced at the noise. "What's going on?" he asked.

"Pray you never find out," one of them called back.

It didn't answer the question. Some kind of torture chamber was the likely explanation, and it made him hate this place that little bit more. He'd recognized the woman. Frostarn of the Whitestar House. The family was well known for their dislike of hybrid Lunataks. Glacin, of the same House, had been his first love. She'd broken his heart badly when she revealed that she'd only dated him to tick off her father, so he turned around and seduced her sister Icilia.

He looked away. Icilia was the one who hurt the most. Glacin's betrayal had been one thing, but when Icilia revealed she was pregnant he'd been filled with mixed emotions. He had been tempted to ask her to bond with him in a public ceremony. But then she'd been found dead, suicide was the official story, but Psychro always figured otherwise. Icilia was too vibrant, and almost seemed excited at the prospect of being a mother. Frostarn was the oldest of the three sisters. There was a brother too, whom Psychro couldn't recall.

It made a weird kind of sense that she would be involved in a group like this, the whole family was, in all likelihood. Such fuss over parentage, it just didn't make sense. Race had never bothered him, his laundry list of failed relationships were a testament to that. He'd dated, and slept with, people from all five moons. He'd been with Lunataks, Mutants, Humans and combinations of the three. There were fine examples of people and poor examples, so he preferred to judge them on how they treated him. If one were to judge the Lunar race based on the likes of Myrik, Drell, and Frostarn then he had no doubt that they would deem the Lunataks to be worthless cowards.

And then there were the others here. Fantasy, Black Tiger, Mind Grind, and all the other prisoners. He felt sorry for them. All of them. It got quiet. Very quiet, the screaming had stopped he realized. Frostarn emerged from the room, licking bloody fingers. She stopped in front of his cell. "I'd heard you were here. It's so nice to see you where you belong. You killed my sister, I hope Crackle lets me kill you. Guards, I'm done with the prisoner. Return him to the barracks." She winked at him and sauntered out of the room, while the guards collected the Psion/Royal. He was unconscious, and bleeding profusely from a chest wound. He would live, even without medical attention, but it wouldn't be a long life. He was tossed haphazardly into his holding cell and the force field re-activated.

Crackle? Frostarn had mentioned the distinctly Graviton name. Was that who owned the warehouse somewhere above them? Was he or she the ring leader of the organization? This was a new piece of information, but he couldn't use it right now.

Myrik sat in Crackle's office as Frostarn entered. Already present were Drell and Raven. Crackle was, ultimately, in charge but he left the day to day running of things to the other four, preferring to deal with the business side of things on the surface. To the outside world Crackle was nothing more than a small arms supplier who happened to own large tracts of land. No one suspected that beneath the surface lay a covert operation that had been in effect for three years.

No one suspected, either, that the weapons he supplied the informal Graviton government were just a fraction of the weapons he was producing. It was much more profitable to sell weapons on the black market, mostly to the Mutants, but also to anyone willing to buy. It was neat and tidy. Crackle wasn't fond of Luna being on the throne, conversation showed, a stable leadership meant fewer opportunities to sell his weapons locally, and increased the chances of being found out. It was Crackle who was most insistent on finding a way to get at Luna.

"You could have cleaned up first," Crackle snapped at Frostarn. There were flecks of blood visible on her bare arms. Myrik had heard that she enjoyed doing her interrogations in the nude, but that might have been just a rumour and personal fantasy.

"Why bother? I've got another lined up after we're done here. Anyway, he didn't tell me anything new. Babbled on about guard rotations and how he really doesn't know any access codes. He might even be telling the truth," she said, pointedly flicking a dried up spot on to the floor.

"Great. Another dead end. Myrik?"

"I experienced a bit of a setback with Psychro. The rumour mill might not be totally accurate on him. I'm still sure the gentle approach will work," he replied.

"You just don't want to damage his pretty body," Drell snickered, while off to the side Raven spat on the floor. Both men earned scowls from Crackle.

"While it's true he's aesthetically pleasing, I know men like him. I have one more gambit that I think might work. I'll try it tomorrow before the first rotation goes in." Myrik sighed. He was starting to feel pressured for results. He wasn't in it for the results, he was in it for the fun. A look at Frostarn told him that she was of a similar mind set. While she was more inclined to want the Lunar race cleansed, she also took a great deal of satisfaction in the torment of her prisoners.

"And if that doesn't work?" she asked, leaning in. He had once considered the prospects of having a tryst with her, a common opinion of others would make for an fascinating bedfellow, but she was too much against interspecies mating. It was a shame, really.

"If it doesn't work, I'll have to up the ante. I don't want to physically hurt him, but there are plenty of ways to hurt him without actually touching him. I'll get the information we want out of him. Don't worry."

Nitro settled on to his bed, Nuiane tucked around one arm. He'd looked over the raw data that Cameo had provided, and it certainly sounded likely that whomever was behind the abductions were targeting mixed race children. It raised an interesting question, one brought up by Nuiane after their lovemaking. She had asked what would happen if she got pregnant.

He only had the one half breed, a son he despised named Knave. The boy was an embarrassment, and Nitro had shunted him to the jail to take care of the prisoners. Out of sight, out of mind. He did seem to enjoy abusing prisoners, beating them for small infractions, and forcing confessions out of them, including crimes they weren't currently being tried for. Now the boy was living with the Thundercats, he was their problem, not Nitro's.

But Knave was family still, a fact that nothing could change. Where Knave's mother had been a Cheetah, though, Nuiane was a Darkling. Any child of theirs would be wholly Lunatak, and fit more easily into Icewalker society. Knave's mother had taught him to be more careful with his sex, but there was no guarantee that his beautiful Nuiane wouldn't someday likewise produce a child. He wondered if that was something she wanted, or whether she was just voicing a fear. These people were the types who probably would abduct a baby.

Squeezing her shoulder gently he considered who these people could be. Psions were the most likely. Whatever was happening was being done by cowards, and any Icewalker knew that the Psions were the most cowardly of all the Moons of Plundarr. There was at least one Darkling involved, possibly more. Certainly, there couldn't be any Icewalkers. An Icewalker met their enemy face to face, they fought with honour and dignity. They could cheat when they had to, or use deception against a more powerful foe, but there was still that honour involved. There was nothing more he could do right now, so he shrugged it off and would worry about it in the morning.

For Cameo, sleep came less easily. His night was plagued with nightmares, visions of Psikaris and his twin children being taken by shadowy monsters, while he was helpless to save them. He almost called Psikaris, back on the Royal Moon, just to make sure that she was okay. She was. She had to be. Someone from the moon would have contacted him by now if she wasn't. He just had to have faith.

Mind Grind whimpered in his sleep, likewise tormented by nightmares. The only difference for him was that if he opened his eyes the nightmare was still there. His leg throbbed from Frostarn's ministrations, his back and arms ached from the labour, and head still hurt from where Myrik had smashed it against the table. It wasn't pleasant at all, and made sleep next to impossible. The only thing saving him was his sheer exhaustion. Sleep wouldn't last long, as they would start working again in the morning.

Far away, though in the same compound, Fantasy lay curled on the floor. Myrik had been in a foul mood when he came in, and been even angrier when he'd seen the mess that Psychro had made. A helpless Psion/Icewalker male had been dragged in and made to clean it up, a spiteful thing no doubt since he obviously didn't want to hurt Psychro yet. The poor man was terrified, and offered little resistence when Myrik dragged him to the bed and had his way with him.

She felt sorry for the man. He was a prisoner, just like she was, but he was also being punished for something someone else had done. Psychro seemed decent, he'd shown her some tricks in bed that she hadn't been aware of, which spoke to a less than innocent past, and seemed genuine in his determination to free her. Of course, all the pity in the world wouldn't completely blot out her relief that Myrik hadn't turned his attentions on her. She hated Myrik with a passion, she was used to being pampered by men, not beaten. For now she would bide her time and hope that Psychro was successful.

"On your feet, ladies," one of the gold suited guards shouted. Black Tiger groaned inwardly. It couldn't possibly be morning yet, could it? She hadn't really slept for very long, had had a miserable night tossing and turning. The room was too bright, relative to what she was used to sleeping in, and the mattress stank heavily. How many people had died on it? She pushed the thought aside and stood at the foot of her 'bed.' The leader of the guards paced the length of the room, making sure that everyone was up while his flunkies stood near the two sets of doors.

Black Tiger, while working, had calculated the amount of time a rebellion would last. She estimated that it would take the guards a minute at most to quell it and kill everyone, and that was being generous. "We have a special treat for you, ladies. Before we serve you breakfast, Myrik has a special mission for some of you. Listen close and do as he says," the leader said, finishing his walk.

As he stepped aside there was a spattering of hushed conversation. She hadn't been talking about him, but Black Tiger remembered Merma's words about not being noticed. Around Myrik she had that icky feeling. He was not a man she wanted to spend any time with, would much rather be in the mines than deal with.

The door swung open and Myrik grandly swept in. "Ladies. I have good news for you. Some of you are about to be cleaned up, fed, and given a chance to avoid working in the mines for a very long time. Does that sound appealing to you?" He strode around as though he owned the place, and as far as Black Tiger knew, he did.

A number of women immediately raised their hands, while others shrank back. Some of these women knew all about 'special missions,' Black Tiger suspected. Her first hunch was probably correct, she wanted nothing to do with it. Myrik started at one end of the room. While the volunteers tried to make themselves more presentable he didn't seem to care one way or another whether the women he tapped volunteered or not.

He walked further down the room. Merma was picked, she noticed, much to the former's dismay. Myrik took great delight in pausing before the women, teasing their selection, watching their reactions. She didn't know what his criteria were, so she didn't bother doing anything as he got closer. He stopped directly in front of her, five women having been chosen thus far, and stared at her for a long time. His eyes took a leisurely stroll, admiring her breasts for longer than she felt comfortable. A shudder ran up her spine as he gently brushed her hair back and leaned in close. "Not yet, my sweet. I have special plans for you."

Myrik took a step back, pleased to see her unsettled. She sank down on the mattress, but he didn't comment. Instead he moved along down the line, picking Chedra as his last pick. The six women, almost an even mix of the willing and unwilling, were led from the room while his guards brought in breakfast. This was a chaotic mess, without Merma to mediate, so Black Tiger forced her way to the table. Merma would chastise her greatly if she didn't take anything for herself. The first rotation would be called soon, so she had time to rest some more and think about what was to come.

"So, where do we stand then?" Cameo asked. He sat at a table with Mystan, Nitro and Nuiane. They had, in front of them, hard copies of all the raw data they had. It all connected somehow, and he hoped it would point somewhere.

"I've been reading all this. I'm inclined to agree with your original assessment; half-breeds, sorry, hybrids are being targeted here," Mystan said. "Assuming that not all missing hybrids are involved in this affair, and that there are people missing that we don't know about, we're still dealing with large number. Which means whoever is behind this has to either have a large number themselves, or are killing their victims very quickly."

They weren't words Cameo wanted to hear. The possibility that Psychro was already dead, wasn't a prospect he wanted to consider at this juncture. Truth be told, he hoped all of them were still alive. He didn't want to deal with any family and explain that a loved one was gone, let alone break the bad news to Psikaris. "Is there a pattern?" he finally said, hoping to get his mind off that path.

"Certainly nothing I can see. People are being taken from all the moons, all sections of the moons, though concentrated around the bigger cities. But then, most of the population, hybrid or otherwise, live in the bigger cities."

"Hence why they are bigger cities," Nitro said.

Nuiane chuckled at the barb, but Cameo wasn't thrilled to hear it. "What about you, then? Can you enlighten us?"

"While Mystan is right, in that the abductions are happening everywhere, I see that a good third are happening on the Royal Moon, with the Graviton next, Psion, Darkling, and Ice. Given that my moon has a greater number of hybrid Lunataks, this is interesting to me." If Nitro was offended he didn't let it show.

"So do we assume their base of operations is on the Royal Moon? Is this one organization with five chapters?" Cameo sighed. He wished he'd looked into some of the disruptions sooner, or that someone had. Missing persons just weren't that glamourous a crime. His communicator chirped and a message appeared on the screen. "Aw crap. We've had another one."

They were on the Ice Moon, in one of the many arenas. An older gentleman, clearly a seasoned fighter, gestured behind him to the locker room. "I was in the second fight. I'd just beaten Cairus and we'd gone to the showers. I got out of the showers first and got changed. I noticed that he was taking a long time, so I went back in to see if he was okay. These young kids, sometimes they've got an internal injury and are ashamed to admit it. You know how it is, Nitro," the man said. Nitro nodded. The younger ones always thought themselves invincible and didn't report injuries to the doctors. Pride was one thing, foolishness another. "Anyway, I got there and he's gone. I can't fathom how it happened, neither. There's only one door to the shower."

Nitro could think of possibilities, but all of them were slim. Nuiane, who had stayed back on the ship with Mystan, could have done it for example. Most Darklings were able to control and manipulate the dark, but Nuiane could use shadows to travel through cracks in the wall. It made her an excellent spy. If she were so inclined she might have been able to travel through the darkness of the drains and abducted someone. Mutant teleporters, while not currently in vogue these days, were another possibility. There was also the chance that this gentleman was lying.

Cairus wasn't a greater fighter, but he was improving. There were many who claimed that his Darkling blood should disqualify him from tournaments, not the first time such a statement had been made. "And you're sure you didn't hear anything else?" Cameo asked, leading the way into the locker room itself.

It was like any other locker room Nitro had been in. A few benches, a shower, a bathroom. Nothing fancy. Men and women trained together, but there was a separate changing area if one felt modest. Nitro inspected the shower too, nothing obvious. No signs of blood or violence. Whatever had happened had been quick. Any noise would have been muffled by the showers too, come to think of it. "Absolutely. Even left the shower running. Shame about the kid."

"It is. We'll do our best to find him."

"How strange that such a thing occurred on the Ice Moon," Mystan remarked. He'd been going over the flight logs from the space port. There had been two ships that might have used a transporter if they had one. But even owning a transporter wouldn't prove anything, they weren't illegal.

"We don't have time for this. Another one disappears without a trace, and I don't feel like we're getting any closer," Cameo sighed. "We'll contact those two ships. There's not enough evidence to search them, but right now it's our best lead."

The shower, Merma grudgingly admitted, felt nice against her skin. Under the close supervision of the guards she scrubbed away at the dirt and grime that was caked in. Skin that hadn't seen the light of day was blue once more. Natural light would be nice, she mused, but suspected that wasn't going to be offered. She didn't know what was about to happen.

Myrik enjoyed taking prisoners of both genders into his room on occasion, and when they came back, or so she heard, they refused to talk about what happened. Never before, though, had he taken more than one. The six women talked amongst themselves, trying to sort it all out. The guards didn't seem to care. Someone, bless them, had arranged for only female guards to be present at this point. Every part of this was uncomfortable, but being ogled by a group of men would have added to the stress.

They all agreed on one thing, as the shampoo ran through her hair, there was going to be sex involved. Probably not Myrik, but one of the other higher ranked men. Why else would they choose six women. The next question was what they were supposed to wear. Their clothes were just as filthy as they had been, and no one seemed about to touch them. Were they supposed to wear dirty clothes on their clean bodies? Were clothes being brought to them?

"That's enough shower time. Food's here. Enjoy it while you can," one of the guards said, as indeed, trays of delicious food were brought in. It had been so long since any of them had eaten anything resembling 'real food' so they greedily ate all they could. Meat, cheese, pastries and all kinds of delicacies disappeared down her throat. Goods from the Graviton Moon, largely, though there was a Darkling custard.

Merma avoided the meat, she'd heard rumours about just what was done with the corpses, but everything else was fair game. The special mission, whatever it was, would come once all the food was gone. She realized it very suddenly and slowed her progress. The longer it took to eat, the later the mission would be. Sadly, she was the only one thinking along these lines. As the last dollop of custard vanished, the trays were taken away and they were sent to wash their hands and faces of any sloppy eating.

And then they were taken out of the showers and into a small meeting room. Merma's face flushed, walking through the corridors in the nude, even passing by other prisoners being brought in and their guards. She saw Drell, the scum who had tricked her into sharing the cab, and he ignored her venomous stare. Myrik waited in this room for them.

"Welcome ladies. May I say it is a treat to see you all looking so well. We are about to be joined by a very special guest, one who needs encouragement seeing the light. You are to be sweet and charming to him. You will do as I say without complaint, or else there will be consequences." He walked as he spoke, as though he were a military commander addressing his troops. "You may only speak if he asks you a question, and I would like to remind you that I will be present at all times."

She looked nervously at her companions. Myrik was suggesting what she thought he was suggesting. They were to help seduce and corrupt someone to their side. It was tempting to try and help him, but she knew too well of Myrik's punishments. She could only hope that this man had a brain in his head and thought with it rather than his crotch.

"Now, here's exactly what we're going to do."

They were like children, Cameo grumbled quietly to himself. Mystan and Nitro were happily sniping at eachother instead of focussing on the task at hand. Actually, that wasn't entirely true. They both were putting in effort, but the bulk of it seemed to happen when the other wasn't around. It was strange, he already had an inkling of the motives behind their assistance, Mystan's reputation and Nitro's honour, but neither seemed to work well around the other. Was this what he was going to have to look forward to when his own children were born?

Cameo stood on the bridge of Nitro's ship, watching the stars as they raced to meet one of the two vessels. Mystan had left some time ago in a smaller craft to speak with the other, claiming something about a Psion ship being more likely to talk to him than to Nitro. The one that they were going to see was a Darkling ship. By the same logic, he supposed, he should have Nuiane do the talking. It wouldn't surprise him to hear Nitro suggest it.

"Rendezvous in an hour sir," the helmsman said. The captain nodded an affirmative. An hour then. An hour wasted travelling when the threat was out there somewhere. Deciding not to waste anymore time he went to fetch Nitro.

They weren't going to like it, Nuiane was sure of that. The Darklings hadn't changed in the four years since she'd last lived on their moon, and they were a secretive bunch. Accusing them of kidnapping was risky business, especially coming from an Icewalker. Not so long ago the Icewalkers and Darklings had been at war. One of Nitro's sons, Davyn, had tainted the water supply on the Dark Moon, many had succumbed to disease and died. Davyn had been caught and burned at the stake on national television as a warning to their enemies. Nitro had refused to see her that night, fearing that he would not be a gentle lover. She appreciated that, and gave him his space. He'd come back, as she knew he would.

Now she followed him, and Cameo, to the captain's quarters where the communication would take place. There was no need to let any of the crew know the details yet. Cameo, she could tell, was less than thrilled that she was coming along, he didn't say as much but she felt it. That was his problem. Nitro was the one in charge, as far as she saw it, and she would respect his desires. Besides, Cameo was probably just uptight because his bond mate looked nothing like her. Or he was scared for her safety. Psikaris was a hybrid as well, she as well as Cameo would be targets for this group, whoever they were.

Hmm... That was more likely, wasn't it. Cameo was doubtless feeling fear over his loved ones, an admirable trait. Nitro cared about his family too, except for the proverbial black sheep. She met Knave on a number of occasions, had been made to bed him once too. If ever the word 'savage' applied to someone, it was him. He'd been a brutal lover, aroused by the sight and smell of blood. She didn't think he'd scratched her on purpose, but she did wonder. Perhaps they could ship Knave off to whomever was responsible.

They opened the door and stepped in. The Darkling captain was waiting already on the viewer, looking rather impatient. "Hello," Cameo said, hastily taking the seat. Nitro and Nuiane took up positions on either side of him. "I am Cameo of House..."

"I know who you are. I keep up with the news," the captain said. She could sense his annoyance even from here. This was one who had doubtless been in the thick of the war, he hated Icewalkers, and Nitro especially.

"Right. Your ship was detected in the vicinity of the Ice Moon around the time that an abduction occurred. I'm sure you had nothing to do with it, but I have to ask whether there is a transporter of any kind on your ship that someone might have used."

The Darkling's temper flared. "You think I... You, woman, do you agree with Cameo?"

Nuiane was caught off-guard by the question. Apologetically, she took the seat from Cameo and stared at the monitor. "I don't know what's happening, truthfully. A lot of people are disappearing, and a popular theory is a transporter was used. We're questioning another ship that was nearby. A Psion one, if that helps." That wasn't as big a deal. The Psions and Darklings were on relatively good terms. Both moons had been opposed to the Icewalkers, and formed an alliance. And then she saw it. A gesture so subtle that neither Cameo nor Nitro likely caught it. The Darkling captain's anger was being cooled by lust. His eyes had flitted momentarily to her ample chest. "May I speak with him alone?" she asked Cameo.

The Icewalker hybrid threw his arms up and left, Nitro following suit, though without the melodrama. "You have a transporter, don't you," she said bluntly, fingers playing with the zipper at her neck. She hated this game, it was so predictable. She'd give him a cheap thrill, and he'd give her the information she wanted. They both knew how it would end.

"We do." The zipper slid a few teeth. "It's in bad need of repair, hasn't worked properly in a few days. Our technician needs a spare part, which is why we're headed to Plundarr." A few more teeth and more skin was exposed. "I can let you come investigate it yourself, if you want. Maybe over dinner?"

She hesitated. That wasn't in the script, and Nitro definitely wouldn't approve. She knew that he was territorial in many ways, especially since Nuiane knew that it wasn't just 'dinner' that the captain was after. But getting a chance to look at that transporter was important. If they could verify somehow that the machine was broken, they could definitively rule out this ship's involvement. A memory surfaced, the last time she had displeased Nitro. He'd threatened to have her killed and eaten, and when she proved contrite enough he'd reduced the sentence to spending the night with Knave. She couldn't chance it, he might not be so lenient next time. The zipper went back up. "That might not be a good idea, unless you're inviting Cameo and Nitro too."

The mood on the other end of the receiver darkened. "So you prefer the company of Icewalkers, then, disgusting. If your precious masters want to inspect our transporter they can. I don't care, they'll probably run crying to the crown if I refuse." The communication ended abruptly, so Nuiane went to report what had happened to the others.

Where Cameo was discovering the accuracy of the captain's statement, that indeed the transporter seemed to have ceased working long ago, Mystan had found interesting news. As the small ship departed the Psion ship he considered the information. The Psion ship was en route to the Psion Moon to report unauthorized activity on their transporters and the theft of one of their shuttles shortly thereafter. They pursued the ship into the asteroid belt, but had been unable to follow the sleeker craft and lost it amid the rocks. It was curious how that asteroid field would crop up again. It made him wonder about the co-incidence of that.

Now they had two names. Mystan stared at the dossiers in front of him. Neither one matched the gentleman in his vision, and neither seemed to jump out at him as being a troublemaker. The worst that could be said, in fact, was that one had been caught spraying graffiti a few years back.

The graffiti. That was something that bore looking into. They didn't know how long this group had been around. Perhaps that had been at the beginning? Calmly he contacted Cameo.

Myrik was being coy about waited for him, as he led Psychro from his cell into an office. The door opened and he saw nothing but opulence, with more tantalizing treats hiding behind curtains. A table was covered in rich and succulent foods, gold and jewels decorated the table. "This is a glimpse of what can be yours, Psychro. Look at it all. Things to tempt the senses. Imagine any dish your mind can conjure, presented on a platter of gold and presented with the finest silk napkins. Only the best for you." And it was tempting. Psychro had barely had a chance to eat anything of late, a thin soup had been shoved into the cell at one point, while one of the guards nicked the piece of bread that had supposed to go to him.

"If food for the stomach isn't enough, what about food for the soul? The latest in technology, videos of your favourite movies all available at the snap of a finger." He pulled aside a curtain and revealed a state of the art computer system waiting. "And of course, something that is neither for the stomach, nor the soul."

He yanked back the next curtain and six naked women in various poses stood or lay around a large bed with what appeared to be satin sheets. He gawked, he couldn't help it. There, kneeling at the foot of the bed, was the one he'd been captured with. Chedra, if he remembered correctly. It was sad. Though they were certainly beautiful, many of them had that same expression he'd seen on Fantasy, a look of desperation and hatred aimed at Myrik. "You know that you want to," the Psion coaxed. "You've never had so many women at once, have you. It's a delightful experience."

"You're insane," Psychro snapped, striking Myrik as hard as he could. He'd learned his lesson from their previous encounter. He needed to work fast before Myrik could get a telepathic hold. And not just for his own sake, for the sake of the women too. He grabbed the Psion and hurled him through the table of food, sending goodies scattering in every direction. Psychro jumped him and struck again, hitting Myrik hard in the side of the head, but that was it. His body refused to co-operate very suddenly.

"And you're a fool," Myrik said, reasserting his control. "You see? None of them tried to help you. They know better. And now they are going to hate you. Because of you, each one of them will be punished. I promised them a chance for a better life, just as you did, a chance to live away from slavery, away from harm. I might even have let them go. But you ruined it for them. Some day you will be so compliant. But for now you will watch, and know that you brought this on them."

Psychro's head turned of its own volition and he saw that none of the women had moved. None had gotten up to help in the fight. The only explanation was they knew the outcome. Myrik had the advantage here. He gestured to a Human/Icewalker. "You. There seems to be cake on my face. Lick it off," Myrik said. Psychro could tell that he was using his telepathy to enhance obedience. He was helpless to do anything but watch as the woman, staring at Psychro with a mixture of relief and anger, did as he commanded.

Myrik pointed at Chedra, "You. I have decided that I cannot harm Psychro physically. Not yet anyway. You will take his beating." Chedra stood, the bruising on her knees still visible as her body trembled. She couldn't fight the mental command and walked up to Myrik. "Your last chance, Psychro, before her blood is on your hands."

The torment continued on for a good hour. Each woman humiliated in any fashion that Myrik could imagine. A Darkling/Psion woman performed oral sex on Myrik while another carved Psychro's name on her belly with a knife. Finally the macabre performance ended, and the women left one by one, leaving the two men alone. "Every one of those torments could be yours, Psychro. Every one of them. I tried doing things the nice way, but you resisted. You attacked me verbally and physically. I don't think you appreciate yet who you're dealing with. All you have to do is give us Cameo. That's all. Betray your brother-in-law." Unable to do anything, Psychro stared mutely. He had taken notes of every single torment he'd inflicted, and planned to repay each one. "Still no. Very well. I had hoped that I wouldn't have to make this personal, but I see I have no other choice. I will make you regret your decision. Farewell, Psychro, and remember, you could have prevented all this."

On to Purification - part three
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