Robert Fitzhugh was cautious as he wound his way down the steep, spiral staircase. Cautious because the ambient light was murky in the best of spots and completely nonexistent in others. Also the stone steps, slick from the sodden atmosphere, were worn smooth by the thousands who had been herded down them. Fitzhugh could imagine the long file of war prisoners as they were marched deep into the bowels of the fortress. He could almost feel the press of unwashed bodies, hear the pleading of the wounded and dying, smell the bitter stench of their terror as they waited to suffer their fate. Some five hundred years after the occupants had annihilated each other in a bloody civil war, their buildings remained most of them intact and habitable.
The dungeons of Brelinta although intact, were not habitable, at least not by human standards, and the current owners had done nothing to improve the property. Rounding the last turn Fitzhugh reached the bottom step and hesitated as he peered around. In the flickering light from a malfunctioning Terson the walls seemed to pulsate with a life of their own. But after a moment he realized it was only water trickling down the lichen covered stones. The fetid air was heavy with moisture. During the rainy season the entire level was under water.
He drew back with a startled gasp as something ran over his foot and scuttled away, hissing as it went. He caught a glimpse of a brush tail and heard the click of sharp claws on the stone. It had been a pfen, a particularly nasty species of scavenger that fed on decayed and rotting flesh. The thought of the thing touching him made his skin crawl, and he shuddered with a chill that was only partially due to the temperature. He unwrapped a slitzer, a sort of hard candy, and slipped it into his mouth, savoring its spicy, cinnamon-like taste. This place could make even the most fearless tremble. He understood the despair, the creeping dread those early prisoners must have felt when they were brought here. Was his prisoner experiencing it? He hoped so. His work would be that much easier.
There was no guard at the cell, inside or out, and even though it was prescribed by his new superiors Fitzhugh considered it unnecessary. There was after all, no escape from Brelinta. He pulled the triangular key from his jacket pocket and inserted it, numbered tip first, into the locking device. There was an audible click as the mechanism disengaged and he tugged on the metal ring. The heavy door swung outward reluctantly, its rusty hinges groaning in protest.
Still unconscious, Fitzhugh's captive was an untidy heap in the far corner, his clothing torn, his dirty face battered and bruised from the rough handling. Fitzhugh had been there when the leader of the raiding party reported on the capture.
“Even after we took the female he resisted,” Group Leader Gentrille said. His agitation was manifested in the jerky motions of his elongated fingers, and in the way his copper colored eyes darted from his superior to Fitzhugh and back again. It was an unusual display from a member of the Ludmalian Security Service. Normally they kept their emotions hidden from outsiders. Fitzhugh had trouble retaining his poker face.
“We outnumbered him six to one but foolishly, he refused to surrender. He fought back as if he had no regard for his own safety.”
That was undoubtedly the case Fitzhugh was certain, but he kept the thought to himself. Group Captain Veristi indicated for Gentrille to go on.
“You didn't say he would be dangerous,” Gentrille complained, his voice so tight it was hard for Fitzhugh to follow his Ludmali. “Our orders were to take him alive, but you should have given me more information. You didn't say he would fight like . . . a Ludmalian warrior. Had I known I would have gone in better prepared, with more men. When the charge ran out on his Brolley, he attacked and killed one of my men with his bare hands before we could stun him.”
Fitzhugh ignored Gentrille's anger. The alien was upset because as leader of the raiding force, the warrior's well-being was his responsibility which meant a portion of the widow's annuity would come out of his own pocket. There might have been one or two things that he, Fitzhugh, could have told the group leader before the raid but really, in the end, the man had been taken and that was all that mattered.
Now, Fitzhugh gazed down at his captive. The man had been fettered like a ginderbete, a Ludmalian canine that couldn’t be domesticated. Wrists, ankles, and neck were encircled with steel and linked with heavy chains. It was the prisoner's inclination for stubbornness rather than a violent nature that made chains a necessary precaution.
Fitzhugh crouched next to the younger man and shook him. It was some time before he got a response but he waited with unusual patience. At length the chains rattled, echoing dully around the stone chamber as the prisoner changed position, moving sluggishly onto his back. His head turned slowly, and eventually, reluctantly, he opened his eyes.
In the feeble light cast by the small Terson lamp on the opposite side of the cell, Fitzhugh saw what he expected, indeed hoped, to see. The man's eyes changed color. His irises went from sea-green to a deep, vast blue in the space of a heartbeat. Fitzhugh felt his spirits rise, but schooled his features into an expression of concern.
Staring up at him the prisoner didn't immediately speak, his confusion apparent. Fitzhugh knew from experience the symptoms a Brolley stun could produce: the disorientation and lightheadedness, the tingling in the hands and feet, the nausea. He propped the young man into a sitting position with the damp, stone wall at his back.
The silence lengthened, and Fitzhugh found it difficult meeting the eerie blue gaze of his former subordinate, Mark Praed. He retreated a step, letting his eyes drop. Praed could make the first move.
But Praed continued to stare with wide, unblinking eyes. Fitzhugh refrained from shifting his feet. Maybe he'd have to initiate the interview after all. Then finally Praed took a careful breath. “Robert. Where are we?”
It wasn't really necessary to respond. Praed had surely guessed, but it might be gratifying to confirm it for him. “Brelinta,” Fitzhugh said, watching the other man closely for any telltale signs of dismay or fear.
But although his lids lowered momentarily, Praed's pale face was expressionless. He fixed his gaze on Fitzhugh. “Tell me you've come because Anya and I are to be released.”
Fitzhugh kept his eyes on the other's face. The implications of the situation had hit home, but clearly Praed was not yet willing to accept them. “Anya is dead.”
As expected, Praed regarded him with something less than credence, his eyes narrowing. Fitzhugh realized what he was attempting and moved quickly to produce the one piece of evidence he'd believe. From a pocket in his jacket he withdrew a thin band of gold and held it out. Praed sucked in a lung-full of air, his eyes growing even larger and more unfocused. He swallowed audibly.
“While they were having their fun with her,” Fitzhugh began, “the Security Service told her you were dead. At some point—no one is sure of the exact moment—she took an ilysium grenade off one of the men and detonated it, killing herself and six soldiers. The explosion took out the roof and parts of two walls. Group Captain Veristi is not pleased since the cost for repairs will be deducted from his salary.” He paused watching the younger man with clinical interest. Praed was so still he didn't even blink. Had the words gotten through?
“The escape route is blown,” Fitzhugh continued. “Everyone has been killed or captured except for the pilots. They're the only ones still at large. You must tell me who they are and the identification numbers of their ships.”
Praed didn't respond. His face was peculiarly devoid of life, his eyes vacant, and Fitzhugh worried that it was all too much for him. Then his jaw tightened, his eyes hardened, and with a clatter and clank of the chains, he held out his dirty hands for the ring. Fitzhugh moved closer but held it just out of reach.
“Mark, for your own sake: be sensible. You have to tell me what you know.”
Praed did not drop his hands. With satisfaction Fitzhugh noted that they were shaking with the effort, but Praed's stony expression did not alter. His bizarre eyes practically seared Fitzhugh with their intensity. “So you can inform on them as well? Not bloody likely.”
“You don't understand.” It was like explaining something to a small child and it tried Fitzhugh's patience. He forced himself to inject a greater note of reason into his tone. “I can't protect you from the Security Service. Give me something to tell them, and I'll see if I can't convince them to forego the execution and send you home instead.”
That was a blatant lie. The Ludmalians would never consider such a thing. But Fitzhugh was confident he could get away with the falsehood. Surely the Brolley blast combined with the shock of the girl's death had eroded Praed's abilities. Although, he realized with a start, it didn't matter now. He didn't care if Praed knew he was lying. He wanted the names of those pilots and he wasn't bothered how he came by them.
Praed must have realized it as well. “I'm not going to help you make nice to Premier Gosti by telling you anything.”
It was not unexpected, but Fitzhugh wouldn't waste any more of his time until specifically requested. “Very well. You're on your own.” He pocketed the ring with an exaggerated flourish and left.
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