The crowd gathered in the private dining room was noisy. Wine bottles and beer cans were abundant, but no one was drunk. Everyone was exuberant, celebrating success after months of effort.
Scott Evans, CEO of Astounding Virtual Reality Corporation, stood up and with some effort got everyone to quiet down. "Well, we finally did it. We've got a working prototype of a virtual reality machine that makes everything else obsolete. No more goggles, no more gloves, just a direct connection to the brain. All of you here have done great work, and on behalf of the company I thank you. Since all of us are stockholders, perhaps we should thank each other."
There was a cheer from the group. Scott continued, "I especially want to thank the group leaders: John Aoki, hardware; Patience Greer, software; and Kimberly Masurak, neuroscience. John, Pat, Kim, we couldn't have done it without you." He made a gesture that encompassed the audience. "We couldn't have done it without all of you."
There was sustained cheering. Scott waited it out. "We've only completed the first step. We still have a long way to go before we have a product we can sell. And speaking of money, here's Eli Orochek, our Chairman and a partner in the venture capital company that's financing our efforts."
There was polite applause as Eli stood up. "Thanks, Scott. And thank all of you. Less than ten percent of our VC investments pay off, but it looks like this one will hit really big. And if it does, every one of you in this room will be a multi-millionaire." This got the loudest cheer of all. "As Scott said, we still have a long way to go before the big payoff, so don't buy a Porsche just yet. This is a critical time. For legal and strategic reasons we're going to delay filing for patents, so if any of our design data becomes public we could end up with nothing. All of us need to keep our mouths shut. A leak of technical information could derail the whole thing. But I know all of you will be careful."
Scott said, "Thanks, Eli. But enough about business. Tonight we can celebrate. And I know most of you workaholics would try to drag yourselves into the plant tomorrow, hung over or not, so I'm going to officially close AVRCorp not just for this weekend but on Monday as well. The bar's open and the restaurant won't kick us out until 2 a.m., so have fun."
More cheers, and the serious partying began. Patience and Kimberly shared a table. Patience said, "You look good tonight, Kim. It's been a long time since I've seen you without your lab coat and with your hair down. That yellow outfit looks good with your black hair. You should dress this way more often."
Kimberly shrugged. "What's the point? Even if I did, no one would notice. You're the one who has to fight off the men. No one looks at me." She enviously scanned Patience's voluptuous body, elegantly displayed in skin-tight jeans and a dark green top that contrasted perfectly with her auburn hair.
"Not true! You could be very attractive if you worked at it. Stop buying your clothes at rummage sales, get some contacts and dump the glasses, use some makeup..."
"Could we talk about something else, Pat?"
"Sure, I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable, I was just trying to help."
The conversation drifted into generalities. Just before eleven Patience murmured, "Nature calls..." She left her table and walked down the hallway that led to the restrooms. Glancing back to confirm she wasn't being followed, she ducked into the empty kitchen and out the back door that led to the alley. The AVRCorp building was in the industrial park on the other side of the alley, and she jogged across the parking lot. She used her key card to enter through the employee's entrance and hurried through the darkened hallways. Usually there were people in the building no matter what time it was, but tonight everyone was at the party.
Patience entered the computer center, dark except for a dim night light. She unlocked the door to the windowless room that housed the computer hardware and entered. She shut the door and only then turned on the lights. She inserted a solid-state memory module into a data port and instructed the computer to copy the design data. As soon as it had transferred all the data needed to reproduce the VR machine she removed and pocketed the data module and erased any record of her intrusion. She turned out the lights and opened the door a crack. The computer center was still dark. Patience slipped through the door and quietly closed and locked it. When she turned around the lights came on.
John, Kimberly, Scott, and Eli were standing in a line staring at Patience. Scott asked, "What are you doing here, Pat?"
Patience was stunned. She mumbled, "Oh, err, I just wanted to get something I forgot."
"Oh, really? The maintenance people are the only ones who have a reason to go into that room." Scott shook his head. "You made a big mistake, Pat. Steve Goldman may be our biggest competitor, but he's also an honorable man. He told me you offered to sell him all our data. You've committed several felonies, and you're going to prison."
The data module suddenly seemed to be burning a hole in Patience's pocket. This was the only hard evidence against her and she had to get rid of it. And to do that, she had to get away from here. Eli was in front of the door. He was in his fifties, although his thin gray hair and rimless glasses made him look older. An easy target. Patience launched a kick that would knock him out of the way.
Patience was astonished when Eli blocked her kick and countered with a sweep that took her legs out from under her. She fell face down, and before she could recover Scott and John pinned her to the floor and pulled her arms together behind her back. Kimberly got a handful of cable ties from a workbench and used them to lace Patience's wrists, forearms, and elbows together. She zipped more ties around Patience's ankles and knees. The two men lifted the helpless woman off the floor and put her in a chair.
Scott asked, "You got the data module in your pocket? I'll leave it there for the police to find when they search you. Why did you do this, Pat? Why did you sell out your friends and colleagues?"
Patience shrugged. "I wanted my money now, and this was the way to get it. This is business, nothing personal. I was just looking out for number one."
Scott took his cell phone out of his pocket. "Well, I suppose all we can do now is call the police." He paused and turned to Eli. "You're a lawyer, Eli. Would it be better to call the District Attorney instead? This may be too involved to explain to a patrolman, and we don't want our data to be introduced as evidence."
Kimberly interrupted, "Scott, before you call the police could I speak to all of you privately?"
"OK with me." The three men joined Kimberly in a corner of the room and they conversed in whispers. Patience couldn't hear what they were saying, but the participants in the conversation seemed to be agitated. Hope stirred. Maybe Kim could talk the men into letting her go. She tested the cable ties cutting into her arms. She wasn't going to get out of here on her own.
Her four colleagues stood in a half-circle around Patience's chair. Scott said, "Here's the deal, Pat. We all agree you've done great work on this project and it would be a waste of talent if you spent a lot of years rotting in prison. Kim has convinced us to give you one last chance to stay out of prison and help the company at the same time. We want you to be a test subject for the VR machine.
"Before you answer I want to be sure you understand the risk. We are dealing with some unknowns here. Up to now all of the VR experiences have been short. The subject left the real world for an hour or less. We want you to have an open-ended VR experience, and you could be out for days. There is a possibility of adverse changes in your brain chemistry induced by this prolonged exposure to the VR device, and that's what this test is for. We, and the experts we've consulted, believe no such problem exists. However, over-exposure is a concern and we may need additional safety measures."
"If I do this test you'll let me go?"
"Maybe. This will be a test in more ways than one. We'll test the machine, and we'll test you. If your behavior during the VR session indicates you have some redeeming qualities, and the four of us will be the ones who decide that, then you won't be prosecuted."
"So you're appointing yourselves as my judges?"
"Yep. Who better to judge than the people who know you? But it's your choice."
Patience thought about her options. Neither was appealing, but she really wanted to stay out of prison. She decided. "OK, I'll be your lab rat."
Kimberly cut the cable ties holding Patience's legs together. Scott and John held her arms and hoisted her out of the chair. They hustled her though the dimly-lit corridors and into the VR lab. They gripped her tightly while Kimberly removed the cable ties from her arms. Once Patience was seated in the primary VR chair Kimberly fastened cable ties around the chair arms and her wrists, forearms and elbows to keep her there.
Kimberly paused to put on her lab coat. Then she tightened the chair's lap belt around Patience's hips. She directed, "Lean back into the head rest." Patience complied and Kimberly tightened a strap around her forehead. She fitted the plastic skull-cap that held the button-sized limbic resonators. She made meticulous adjustments, bouncing between the apparatus attached to Patience's head and the control console.
Patience had never been involved with this part of the project and she was initially frightened, but her fear ebbed a bit as she waited for Kimberly to finish installing the interface that would couple her brain to the VR machine.
Patience joked, "If it takes this long to hook up the customers our VR will be a tough sell."
"This is just the prototype, Pat. The production machines will do all this automatically. I'm also installing some data probes so we can monitor your brain activity. This would be a good time for you to ask any questions you might have, instead of making smart-ass remarks."
"Hey, no offense meant, Kim." Patience thought a moment. "Will I be the same in the VR world as I am here in the real world?"
"No. Your basic personality will be intact, but your physical appearance and your motor skills will change. It won't be a radical change. You'll still be a twenty-something woman, but you will be different."
"Will I be aware of my real-world life while I'm in the VR world?"
"We don't know for sure how much of your normal life you'll remember. That's one of the things we want to find out from this test."
"Will I be the only real person in the VR world?"
"Yes. The actions of the other characters are determined by the AI. You should know this, you did most of the software for it."
"How long will this last?"
"Subjectively? Days or even weeks. In real time you'll be out for a lot less time than that." Kimberly took an IV setup out of a cabinet and inserted a plastic needle into a vein in Patience's left hand. She connected a bag of sucrose solution to the IV tube. "This will keep you hydrated."
Kimberly loosened the lap belt and removed Patience's jeans and panties. She replaced them with an adult diaper. "This will keep things from getting too messy. You won't be out long enough to justify a catheter." Kimberly refastened the lap belt and secured Patience's ankles to the chair with more cable ties.
Kimberly moved to the control console and watched the screen for several minutes. Everything seem to be operating properly. "OK, Pat, here we go. Five, four, three,..."
Patience decided she didn't really want to do this. She screamed, "Nooo..."
* * *
The woman sat up and discovered she was surrounded by an expanse of dry brown grass that stretched to the horizon, where it merged with the blue, cloudless sky. Somewhere close by a bird was singing an elaborate song—a complex, warbling phrase—repeated—a second phrase—also repeated—then a third. This is strange. How did I get here? Where was I before I got here? And... who am I?
While her mind pondered these existential questions she climbed to her feet. She slowly turned and scanned the horizon. The knee-high grass undulated and rolled in waves before the gentle wind, like a golden ocean. The plain was mostly level, but it occasionally rose and fell in low ridges and shallow depressions. Here and there breaks and gaps hinted at terrain well below the surface level of the grassland. On the horizon she could see a flat-topped mountain. The air was so clear she couldn't tell if it was a small mountain, close by, or a large mountain, far away.
She closed her eyes and concentrated. My name is...my name is...Pat! "Yes!" she shouted. "I know my name!" But I don't know anything else.
Pat was surprised to see that she was standing in a perfectly round patch of flattened grass. She inspected at her body. She was wearing a loincloth and a sleeveless tunic made of some soft, off-white homespun fabric. The tunic was open down the front and extended to the top of her thighs. It had deep armholes and a plunging bodice, and hugged her torso while providing total freedom of movement.
There was a small pile of various objects on the ground. Pat picked up a leather arm guard and bound it to the inside of her left forearm. She tightened the crisscross thong laces, using her right hand and teeth with automatic skill. She picked up a horn ring and slipped it over her right thumb. Wait! What's going on? My body seems to know what to do even if my brain doesn't. She removed the ring and looked closely at her thumb. There was a callus where the ring rubbed. Whatever else I may be, I'm certainly an archer. She put the ring back on.
Next in the pile was a narrow leather quiver and bow-case. Pat loosened a thong closure, folded back a weather flap, and removed a short, recurved bow. It was a compound bow, animal horn, different species of wood, and animal sinew, layered together and glued. It was short, light, and beautiful. She set it aside.
The quiver was attached to a leather belt with a diagonal leather strap. She put the strap over her right shoulder so the quiver was against her left hip, and wrapped the leather belt around her waist. The belt fastened in front, but it didn't have a buckle; instead, a cord was threaded through two pairs of holes punched near the ends of the strap.
Pat strung the bow and took an arrow from the quiver. It had a small triangular iron point bound in a slot at the end of a shaft of some light, straight-grained wood. The fletching was made of gray and white feathers, attached with glue reinforced by a wrapping of sinew.
Pat nocked the arrow and drew it back. Her thumb was under the arrow. Her index finger wrapped over the string and held it in a shallow groove on the thumb ring. She held the draw for a few moments, tempted to shoot, but she didn't want to lose her arrow in the tall grass. She considered unstringing the bow but thought better of it. There may be something big and hungry hiding in this grass. I'd better be ready.
The sun was high in the sky and the air was hot. Pat was sweating and had a growing thirst. There was a large gourd with a wooden stopper on the ground. She shook the gourd and detected a faint sloshing. Better than nothing. She drank the swallow of water. Have to find some more, and soon. The gourd was tied to a long loop of fiber rope, and Pat put it over her left shoulder.
The remaining item was a leather pouch that contained a flint and steel fire starter, some braided cord, and a bone needle with a twist of thread. It didn't contain any food. The pouch strap also went over her left shoulder. I seem to be well-equipped, at least as far as hardware is concerned. I wish I could say the same about my memory.
Which way to go? If I don't know where I am, my direction of travel doesn't really matter. The only prominent terrain feature was the mountain, so, bow in her left hand, Pat started walking towards it. She climbed a small rise and saw a faint line of green that could be trees. Trees usually mean a river. It was in the same direction as the mountain so she continued on, quickening her pace.
Before long she reached a shallow gully. It was dry, but Pat followed it anyway. Soon it was joined by another gully to form a dry wash. Pat walked along the sandy surface. She felt uneasy, as though some hidden menace was watching her. She kept her eyes moving, and frequently turned quickly to look behind her. But she saw nothing that moved, except for some birds flying in the distance. Her path trended downward, and gradually the steeply eroded bluffs that edged the wash became higher than her head. Pat kept looking for tracks in the sandy surface, but except for some small hoof and paw prints she saw nothing. Nothing but animal tracks. Would human footprints be a good thing or a bad thing?"
Pat rounded a bend in the wash. Ahead of her was a wide floodplain of sand, silt, and large pebbles. It was bordered on both sides by short limestone cliffs, unbroken except where tributaries such as the wash joined. A stream of clear water meandered back and forth across the center portion of the floodplain. There were only some scrubby bushes here, but downstream larger trees with deep green leaves were visible.
"Water!" Pat jogged to the stream and knelt beside it, dropping her bow and scooping up the precious liquid in her cupped hands. When she had satisfied her thirst she filled her gourd. Her immediate worries about survival lessened.
She noticed a thick driftwood branch sticking out of the sand about fifty paces away. I wonder if I'm any good with this bow. She picked up the bow and nocked the arrow. In one smooth motion she drew and released. The arrow flew true to the mark, embedding itself in the center of the branch. Not bad. There was a smaller branch at about twice the distance. She shot another arrow and again struck her target. Hey, I'm good!
The heat from the sun and the glare from the sand was oppressive. Pat decided to rest in the shade of the trees until it was cooler. She nocked another arrow. Big animals like shade, too. She scampered across the hot sand, retrieving her arrows as she reached them. The soles of her bare feet were heavily callused, but walking on the hot sand was still uncomfortable.
Pat was happy to reach the trees and get out of the sun. The grove had two species of large trees, one with round, dark green leaves and rough gray bark and the other with smoother bark and pointed, lighter green leaves. A variety of smaller trees and plants were scattered around and under the large trees. Most were no larger than waist-high, but some reached twice Pat's height.
Pat walked over to a bush covered with bright red berries. Are these berries edible? Do I want to risk finding out?"
Pat picked a few berries from the bush. She froze when she heard a voice behind her.
"You're very careless. If we were savages you'd be dead by now, or wishing you were. Drop the bow and turn around."
Pat slowly turned. A woman holding an iron-headed ax in her right hand was about six paces away. On her left arm she carried a large oval shield that covered her from chin to knee. Two similarly armed women stood to either side, and behind were two more holding drawn bows. The ax-wielders' shields were made of scraped hides on a wooden frame. Each displayed the same symbol painted in black: A horizontal wavy line over three diagonal slashes. It didn't represent anything Pat recognized. She sighed, and dropped her bow.
The woman in the center said, "Flas, Frin, seize her!"
The flankers sheathed their axes and dropped their shields. Pat's arm guard and horn thumb ring were removed, as well as the belt holding her quiver and other equipment. Then Flas held Pat's hands crossed behind her back while Frin tied them tightly with fiber rope. More rope was wrapped around Pat's waist to securely fasten her hands to the small of her back. Pat struggled briefly, but quickly realized she wasn't going to be able to free her hands without a knife. The rope around her waist forced her hands up and her elbows out, and she bent over slightly to compensate.
"I'm Lea, patrol leader of Pa'jk, and you're intruding on Pa'jk territory. Did you know that?"
Pat shook her head. She had never heard of Pa'jk, and could only guess that it was a political entity of some sort.
Pat's captors were dressed much as she was, except their tunics were dyed a light brown. All of the women were wearing a necklace. A leather thong held a palm-sized round medallion made of horn and incised with the same symbol painted on the shields. Lea's necklace also had two gold and six copper beads, while Flas' and Frin's had only four copper beads.
"What's your name?" Lea asked.
"Pat? That's a strange name. It doesn't mean anything. Where's your necklace?"
"I don't have one. I... I must have lost it." Is it in the grass back where I woke up? What else am I missing?
Flas pointed at Pat. "She has such strange hair. It's all the same color."
Most of Flas' hair was brown and cut short, but there was a longer blonde streak down the center, about three fingers wide. This had been plaited into many short braids, which formed a sort of crest along the center of her head. The other women wore their hair in the same style, but the colors were slightly different for each. Pat could tell the streak was natural, not dyed, because there weren't any off-color roots.
Frin looked long at Pat's face. "And look at her eyes! So pale and blue. She has eyes like the sky seen through a skull." All of the Pa'jak women had dark eyes, ranging in color from black to brown, with flecks of gold.
"I heard some of the People south of Ve'jk have eyes like that," one of the archers said.
"There are no People south of Ve'jk," the other archer objected.
"Enough!" Lea barked. Her eyes focused on Pat. "What is your city?"
Pat didn't know how to answer. She didn't know any city names. "I have no city."
"No city? Then where do you come from?"
She had no idea where she came from. A response was expected, so Pat pointed with her chin towards the direction away from the mountain.
Flas said, "I heard some of the People of Fa'jk escaped when it was destroyed by the savages. They supposedly built a village east of Ei'jk. She might be from there."
This was as good a story as any Pat could make up, so she nodded.
Lea muttered, "Double-brown hair, blue eyes, wandering around without so much as a single bead... she may have been touched by The Mother, but I'll let the chiefs decide that." Lea shook her head, "No matter where you're from, 'Pat', you're now a slave of Pa'jk."
Pat was confused and frightened. A few hours ago she had found herself in a strange world, but at least she had been free and armed. Now she was a helpless captive. It could be worse, I could be dead now. But what if torture or human sacrifice is part of the culture of this mysterious Pa'jk? She struggled against the ropes on her wrists, to absolutely no effect.
"Time to get moving," Lea commanded. "Pyla and Reni, take the point. Tewa, you're the drag. Iona, you guard the prisoner. Move out."
Two of the women jogged downstream. After a moment Frin followed them. Another woman moved to the upstream end of the woods.
"Your name is really Pat? I never heard that name before. I'm Iona." Iona was younger than the other women, just barely an adult, and her necklace had only one copper bead next to her medallion. Her eyes were brown, and her hair was black with a light brown streak. "Is it true you don't have a home city?"
Pat nodded. As far as I know, I don't even have a home.
"That's awful." Iona rubbed her medallion. "Pa'jk is the center of my life." Iona took Pat's knife from its sheath and put it in her pouch. She got a piece of rope from her pouch, tied a slip knot in it, and tightened the loop around Pat's neck. Iona slung her shield on her back. She picked up Pat's bow, unstrung it, and slid the bow into its case. She secured the flap and slung it with her shield.
Iona tugged Pat's leash. "Move, and no talking, or Lea will make me gag you." She shrugged, adjusting her load, then winked. "We can talk later, during rest breaks."
Pat supposed she ought to resent her captor, but she found it impossible to dislike the perky young warrior. She walked in Iona's footsteps, noting how alert Iona and her companions were as they moved along the river. This isn't just a casual hike. There must be something dangerous out here. If it wasn't for the ropes I'd be happy to be traveling with these warriors.
A couple of hours later Pat and Iona reached a patch of trees where Lea and Flas had stopped for a conference. Pat was tired and sweaty. She was finding it awkward to walk with her hands tied behind her back. Iona lifted the gourd on Pat's hip up to her lips. Pat drank deeply. "Thank you, I was really thirsty."
"Are you hungry, too? I've got some dried meat." Iona dredged some jerky out of her pouch and cut it into bite-sized chunks, which she fed to Pat one at a time. Pat mumbled her thanks as she chewed.
Pat complained, "These ropes are really cutting into my wrists. Can you loosen them?"
Iona laughed, "Untie you? You're trying to trick the innocent one-bead, aren't you? I'm insulted that you'd think I'd fall for it." She fed Pat the last of the meat, then smiled broadly. "This is so exciting! It's my first real patrol."
"Patrol? What are you looking for? People like me you can capture?" Pat was still worried about her ultimate fate.
"Oh, no. We just happened to find you. We're watching out for savages or raiders from another city, especially Ce'jk. It's downstream from here, where this Plains River meets the Big River. They're always pushing up the river, threatening our villages."
"How long do these patrols last?"
"It depends. We've been out two days so far. I don't know how much longer we'll stay." She raised her voice, "How long will we stay out, Patrol Leader?"
"Not long, if you keep yelling like that. We'll be attacked by every savage between here and Fa'jk ruins."
Iona muttered, "I'm sorry, Lea. I'll be quiet."
"You'd better be, if you don't want to lose your bead." Iona gasped and clutched her necklace.
Pat smiled. She suspected loss of her bead would be a loss of status for Iona, and the youngster didn't seem to have much status to lose.
Break over, the patrol continued down the river. Pat trudged along, head down and thinking of nothing but her next weary step.
"Stop," Iona commanded in a low voice.
Pat was glad to obey. At this point there weren't any trees, just some high, thick brush growing next to the water. The river formed a bend here, so visibility both upstream and downstream was restricted. Lea and Flas were looking upstream, where a running woman had just come into view. It was Tewa, the warrior who was the rear guard for the patrol.
Tewa ran up to Lea. "Savages. Moving this way," she said between pants.
"At least twenty."
Lea exclaimed, "Mother! Downstream, quick! We've got to join up with the others." She looked back upstream.
Flas said, "They're joining us." She pointed downstream. Frin was about a hundred paces away and running towards them, and Pyla and Reni were just coming into view around the bend.
Frin ran to Lea and reported, "Savages, more than thirty, and coming this way."
Lea calmly said, "We're trapped then." She scanned the terrain. The cliffs were steep and about ten paces high, with no breaks. She spotted a small notch in the cliff face. "Over there. We can make a stand with the cliff at our backs."
Lea grabbed Pat's left arm and Iona took the right one. "Run!" The three women ran towards the cliff.
The notch in the cliff face was roughly semicircular and about five paces across. There was a conical pile of dirt and fallen rocks inside it, up against the cliff. The women ran up onto it. Lea commanded, "Untie her, Iona."
Iona dropped her shield and Pat's bow case and quiver. She pulled her knife and cut the ropes binding Pat's wrists. She picked up her shield and hurried to the face of the notch, where the other women were forming a line. All of them had their shields on their left arms and their axes in their right hands. Iona joined the line next to Lea. Pat rubbed her wrists and tried to massage some life back into her fingers.
Lea ordered, "Get behind us, Iona. You don't have enough experience to stand in a shield wall and take the first shock of an attack by so many. Stand ready to replace the first to fall."
Iona obediently turned and went back up the slope. While she was gone Pat had strung her bow and was now lacing the arm guard onto her left forearm.
Iona exclaimed, "You shouldn't have a weapon! You're a captive."
Pat pointed towards the river, where the savages had formed a line about a hundred paces distant. From here they looked like men, except their bodies were completely covered with short gray fur. All of them carried a spear and a stone war club. "Will that matter to them?" She knotted the arm guard thong and put the ring on her thumb.
"No, they want to kill all of us."
The savages had moved closer while Pat and Iona were talking. Pat shot an arrow at the advancing line.
Lea shouted over her shoulder, "Don't waste arrows! Wait until they're closer." She turned back and watched the arrow bury itself in the chest of a savage. The hairy attacker dropped like a stone, tripping one of his fellows. "Oh... Never mind then."
Pat shot again and another savage fell. With a roar, the rest surged forward. Pat shot as fast as she could, and almost all of the arrows found a target. She shouted, "Iona! Get more arrows!" Iona moved along the line of women, collecting arrows from the quivers and sticking them into the ground where Pat could easily reach them. Then she put her shield on her arm and her ax in her hand, once again prepared to fill any gap in the shield wall.
The savages hurled a volley of spears and closed with the shield wall. With a crash of clubs on shields the first of the savages struck. They were brave and skilled warriors, but they acted as individuals, each attempting to gain personal glory, even to the point of shoving others aside. In contrast, the shield wall was a machine, all of the parts moving in synchronism, all of the Pa'jaks supporting and protecting their fellow warriors. After the initial clash the savages withdrew briefly to regroup. Pat kept shooting arrows over the women's heads, and at this range she couldn't miss.
A savage hurled a stone-tipped spear directly at Pat. Iona stepped forward and blocked it with her shield. Pat kept shooting. The shield wall still held, but it wouldn't last long once the savages closed in.
Suddenly, there was a high-pitched, human war cry, and from the bushes behind the savages a line of warriors charged forward. The surprised and now outnumbered savages fled, running upstream to escape the charging women. Some of the warriors started to pursue, but the leader called them back.
At first Pat thought they were Pa'jak warriors, but now she noticed the differences. Their tunics were dyed dark green, and the symbol on their shields was six equally spaced radial lines around a dot.
Some of the green-clad women examined the fallen savages, dispatching with an ax blow those who were only wounded. Others retrieved the arrows and destroyed the clubs and spears. A squad fanned out to form a picket line.
The leader stepped forward. She was tall, with black eyes and dark brown hair with a gold streak, braided to form a crest. Her necklace had the usual medallion, plus six gold beads and ten copper beads. "Hail, Lea. We meet again. I was a reluctant guest in your city what, four years ago? Now you can visit Ce'jk."
"Hail, Alena. Could I not postpone my visit? Until after the solstice, perhaps?"
"I'm afraid not. No Peace is active now and there are not three moons in the sky. We outnumber you by three to one, and by the look of your brave warriors you are not ready for another fight. I acknowledge your honor and the honor of your warriors, and command you to surrender."
Lea sighed and dropped her shield. "We are compelled to do so." She commanded, "Down weapons!" All of the Pa'jak women dropped their axes and shields.
Pat was astounded by all this. She just stood there until Iona knocked the bow out of her hand. "Are you dazed, Pat? It would dishonorable to continue to resist."
"Yeah, and we wouldn't have a chance anyway. But giving up without a fight bothers me."
"You must indeed come from some distant place to be so unfamiliar with the laws of the People."
Alena stepped forward, accepted Lea's ax, sheathed it, and tucked it in her belt. Then her troops moved quickly to secure their prisoners. All the Pa'jak women of the shield wall were stripped of their equipment and bound.
Iona was next. She cooperated without protest as her belt with its bow and quiver was removed and her arms were tightly bound behind her back.
Then it was Pat's turn. Once her belt had been removed her arms were folded behind her back with her forearms parallel to the ground, and the center of a long rope was tied around her wrists. The ends of this rope were wrapped around her arms and body below her breasts and the ends tied together. Short pieces of rope cinched the loops together just above her bent elbows. Another rope was doubled and the center tied around her bound wrists. The ends were passed under her armpits and tied together at the back of her neck.
Her Ce'jak captor had worked with practiced skill, and the whole process took just a few minutes. Pat was helpless. All she could do was move her hands up and down slightly. Any movement of her arms was prevented by the tight strands. The ropes around her wrists and arms weren't tight enough to constrict her circulation, and she had a premonition that she would stay tied up for a long time. The premonition became a certainty when a warrior pulled her loincloth loose in front and tucked it up in back, out of the way.
One of their captors tied one end of a short rope around Iona's neck and the other around Pat's, with about an arm's length linking them. They were hustled down the slope and to the back of a line of paired captives. They were connected to a rope already linking the other neck tethers, and now they were part of the coffle.
Alena and the bound Lea inspected the captives. None of the Pa'jaks were seriously wounded, although most were bruised and a few had cuts that had been cleaned and bound with cloth bandages by their captors.
When Alena came to the end of the line of prisoners she noticed the woman in the undyed tunic. Then she took a closer look and realized how really different she was, with her strange hair and blue eyes. Alena resolved to investigate this matter much more closely when she had some time.
Lea said, "Thank you for your kindness to my warriors."
Alena smiled, leaned forward and kissed Lea's cheek. "Kindness is like the tumble-bush," she said, quoting a Pa'jak proverb.
Lea laughed and kissed Alena's cheek in return. "It rolls away, the wind turns, and it rolls back." She walked to the front of the coffle and waited patiently as she was leashed to one of her subordinates.
Alena ordered, "Clera, take charge of the prisoners. Pick four others to help you, and get them moving. We want to reach our camp before dark."
Clera saluted with a wave of her ax and picked up the lead rope of the coffle. She gave it a jerk and the coffle was set in motion, downstream towards Ce'jk.
A Ce'jak warrior reported, "The savages are still running, Alena. They won't be back soon."
"That's good news, Beka, but let's not get complacent. We're still a long way from home." Alena shouted, "Clera! Go faster!"
Clera waved her ax in response and broke into a jogging run. The captives were forced to comply.
After a while Clera slowed the pace back to a walk. Once she got her breath back Pat said, "I haven't thanked you for blocking that spear, Iona. You're very brave."
Iona shook her head. "I'm not brave. I was terribly afraid, but when I saw you calmly putting on your arm guard I decided that I had to pretend I was brave."
Pat laughed. "That was my body acting on its own. My mind was scared senseless. You shamed me into pretending I was brave. But once I started shooting I forgot everything else."
Iona's nose wrinkled as she grinned. "That is funny. We both acted brave because of the other. Our spirits had a really strange conversation back there, didn't they?"
"Yes, I suppose they did." Pat felt a deep affection for Iona. Her cheerful attitude, even in these circumstances, acted to relieve some of the anxiety Pat felt about her uncertain future and unknown past. Yet Iona now faced a life of servitude. "I'm sorry your first patrol turned out to be your last."
"What do you mean, Pat?"
Pat tried to flex her bound arms. "Well, we're going to be slaves in Ce'jk, aren't we?"
"Oh sure, but the Summer Peace will start soon. It's not that long until the solstice. Pa'jk has some captives from Ce'jk, and there'll be an exchange. The lowest-ranked warriors are always exchanged first, so I'm sure to be included. There aren't any warriors lower than a one-bead."
"You mean your slavery isn't permanent?"
"Of course not! Everyone knows that warriors are always exchanged. One of the reasons for going on patrol is to take captives to trade for our warriors held by other cities."
"What do you think will happen to me?"
Iona bit her lower lip. "I don't know. If you haven't got a city, there can't be anybody to exchange for you. You may be a slave for a long time."
While Pat thought about that cheery prospect Clera signaled for more speed and the coffle started to run again. Pat had some more questions for Iona, but she had to save her breath for running.
The pattern of run and walk continued for the rest of the afternoon. The captives and their guards reached a large grove of trees just before sundown. Except for the pickets, all of the other Ce'jak warriors were in their camp. Small cooking fires were burning, and Pat could smell roasting meat.
The captives were separated from the coffle rope and each was individually tied to a tree. A guard pushed Pat up against a small tree and tied a loop of rope around her neck. She circled the trunk with the end of the rope and tied it around Pat's neck again. The rope was long enough to let Pat move about a pace away from the tree, but no knots were within reach.
Iona was tied to a small tree about four paces away from Pat. Each woman sat on the ground and leaned against her tree trunk. Iona sighed, "I'm really tired. It's a lot harder to run when you're tied up."
"Yeah, I noticed. You said something about a Summer Peace. What does that mean?"
"You don't know?" Iona asked.
"No, I'm from far away, and I don't know much about what happens in the cities." I don't know anything about what happens in the cities.
"Well, there's the Summer Peace, which starts at the summer solstice and ends at the fall equinox, and the Winter Peace, which goes from the winter solstice to the spring equinox. While a Peace is active cities are prohibited from doing war, except against the savages, of course. This means the crops can be planted and harvested without worrying about a raid, and warriors can visit other cities to trade. We exchange captives at the start of each Peace."
Pat was puzzled. She asked, "If peace is good, why don't you have it all the time?"
Iona shrugged. "I don't know. It's just a rule we have to follow."
Pat asked, "What's to keep some city from making a surprise attack during a Peace?"
Iona was shocked. "That city would be cursed by The Mother. Some say the chiefs of Fa'jk debated making a raid during a Peace, and this alone was enough to cause the city to be destroyed."
"I thought the savages did that."
"The Mother uses many means to accomplish Her ends."
Pat decided to drop the religious discussion and go on to more practical matters. "If I can't be exchanged, I could be a slave for the rest of my life. How can I avoid that?"
"Well, you could escape. A warrior doesn't lose any honor by escaping, because she hasn't any obligation to the city that's holding her. The only restriction is you can't hurt anybody if a Peace is active. Of course, you don't have a home city, so you would be enslaved again in any city you went to."
"That is a problem." Pat sighed. "Isn't there any other way for me to avoid slavery?"
"There might be. If you have some valuable skill or perform some great service to the city the chiefs could give you a medallion. Or you could be adopted. Either way, you'd have a home city, and you could travel to other cities without being enslaved, as long as it was during a Peace."
"Who'd adopt me?"
"Your lover could do it, if her status was high enough."
"Her? Couldn't I have a male lover?"
Iona laughed, "You and your jokes! Men can't have lovers. They have to impregnate as many different women as they can. Pa'jk is lucky, because we have almost thirty men. Most cities have fewer."
Pat had a lot to think about and a lot more questions to ask. But before she could voice them a guard arrived with a water gourd and some meat chunks on a skewer. By the time Pat was fed Iona was asleep, and Pat didn't stay awake much longer.
Pat woke up in the predawn darkness. She had gone to sleep leaning against the tree, but she had fallen over. Pat struggled against the ropes, again, and didn't get close to freeing herself, again. She thought, What's the point? Even if I got loose where would I go? I'd just run into a pack of savages.
Pat froze in terror as a shadowy figure approached, but it was just a guard, checking on the prisoners. She propped Pat back up against the tree and inspected Pat's bondage using her fingers and the faint light from the moons that filtered through the leaves. The fingers reached inside Pat's tunic and groped her breasts. The guard gave Pat a final caress on her bare pubes before vanishing into the gloom. Wow! I guess no men means you have to use women if you want sex. That idea doesn't seem to appeal to me, though.
Pat tried to ease the pain in her arms. Except for the ropes these people haven't been brutal, and Iona doesn't seem to be worried. But she expects to go home soon. Pat concentrated, willing her mind to reveal the secrets of her past. I've got to have a home someplace! But she remembered nothing.
The camp was awake before dawn. A guard with a water gourd and a basket of cold roasted meat chunks fed and watered Pat and Iona. She was followed by two other warriors. They were carrying a long pole on their shoulders. Dangling from the middle of the pole was a stack of shields and a couple of leather-wrapped bundles.
Iona groaned when she saw them. She and Pat were untied from the trees and the pole was placed on their right shoulders, with Iona in front. The ends of the poles were cushioned by small leather pads stuffed with something slightly resilient, but the weight still caused the pole to press painfully into Pat's shoulder. When she realized that she would be carrying the load for the entire day she groaned too.
The guard threaded a rope through a hole near the end of the pole and wrapped it around Pat's neck. The rope wasn't tight, but it would keep the pole in place. When all of the captives were attached to poles the war party started to travel again, moving downstream to Ce'jk.
About midday they reached a large grove of trees. Alena gave the order to stop, and the captives were allowed to collapse in the shade. Pat and Iona fell to their knees, moaning with relief as the weight of the pole came off their shoulders. A pair of warriors untied the neck ropes and removed the pole so Pat and Iona could lie down. Pat was so grateful she didn't mind when a guard tied her ankles together.
Once Alena was sure the pickets were properly placed she found Clera. "Let's inspect the captives, Clera."
"What's the matter, you think I'm doing a bad job?"
"Of course not. It's just that a good war leader keeps in touch with everything that's happening."
"Right." Clera headed towards Pat. "I want to find out about that strange woman too. She's very pretty."
Alena laughed, "I can't fool you, can I?"
"Nope. Everyone knows you broke up with Jaid. Now you're on the prowl and getting desperate. You should forget about monogamy and play the field, like me."
"I'm not desperate! I'm just a bit physically deprived, and sex without love is essentially meaningless."
Clera laughed. "If you have sex with yourself is it with love or without it?"
Pat was supine in the shade of a small tree. This was putting pressure on her arms, but they were so numb it didn't matter. Her neck had been chafed by the rope and she was wondering if there was anything she could do about it. Would they think I'm a weakling if I complained? Are the weaklings the ones they choose for the human sacrifice? Better not risk it.
Alena and Clera pulled Pat up onto her knees. She tensed, then forced herself to relax. If they want to kill me there's nothing I can do, except die with a smile on my lips.
Alena said, "Take care of that chafing on her neck, Clera." Clera removed a small pottery flask from her pouch and spread a pungent ointment on Pat's neck.
Alena asked, "What's your name, and why aren't you wearing your necklace?"
"My name is Pat, and I lost it."
Pat waited for the rest of the usual litany, but Alena surprised her. "In your battle with the savages you were the archer, weren't you? That was good shooting. All of you would have been overrun if it wasn't for that."
Pat shrugged. "All I did was shoot arrows. We survived because of the skill and bravery of the warriors in the shield wall."
"Don't be so modest. I saw the bodies of the savages. Most had been killed by arrows. You are a very skilled warrior, and women like that are very attractive." Alena stroked Pat's hair. "What strange hair. And your eyes are a strange color too." But your face and body aren't strange at all, they're beautiful. She felt a familiar wave of emotion.
Alena moved her hands over Pat's body, lingering on her breasts. "Are you hurt?"
Pat ignored the hands caressing her. "The rope on my arms hurts. How about untying me?"
Alena laughed, "You couldn't fool a one-bead with that trick." She stroked Pat's face.
Clera coughed. "Shall we complete the inspection, War Leader? We still have a ways to go before we're home. Unless you want to camp here for the night."
Alena recalled herself to duty. "No, we'll push on." She made a cursory inspection of the other prisoners. "They seem to be holding up. Be sure they all get food and water, then load them up again."
The war party moved out. For the captives it was a wearying slog that got worse as the day dragged on. The pole was on Pat's other shoulder now, which made the pain symmetrical. She lost track of time and paid no attention to her surroundings except for the ground under her feet. Pat and Iona were the last in line, so they had the greatest tendency to straggle.
"Youch!" Pat yelped as a guard hit her across the back of her thighs with a thin stick.
"Step it up! We want to get back to Ce'jk tonight, not tomorrow." The guard also encouraged Iona with a swipe with the stick. Iona didn't yelp, she just groaned a bit and increased her speed marginally.
Pat's spirits rose when the war party reached some cultivated fields. She had no idea what the crops were. What looked like grain of some kind was growing in some fields, others had knee-high bushes with no visible fruit or pods. Still others contained rows of chest-high stalks with long fluffy tassels. She thought, The city can't be too far. I may make it before I collapse!
Pat's hopes were dashed. They had been traveling through cultivated land for some time now, and she no longer believed the end of the journey was close at hand. Her hopes soared when they passed a few buildings built into a shallow cave half-way up the side of the cliff, but the warriors passed it without slowing. Every time she rounded another bend in the river she expected to see the city of Ce'jk, and every time she was disappointed. Finally she stopped caring and just concentrated on moving fast enough to avoid a blow from the guard.
It was almost sundown when Pat heard a muted cheer from the Ce'jak warriors and looked up. The walls of Ce'jk were in sight. As she got closer Pat could make out more details. The city was on the top of the cliff, far above the river. She thought, How are we going to get up there? That is a very steep cliff.
Everyone came to a stop at the base of the cliff. Now Pat could see that a narrow staircase had been chiseled out of the limestone. It was steep and just wide enough for one person at a time. The first pair of captives was just starting to carry their pole up the stairs. Pat was very nervous. I don't like the looks of this. One slip and it's all over.
All too soon it was Pat and Iona's turn to climb the path to the city. Iona started up the steps. Whimpering inside, Pat was forced to follow. She walked as close to the inside as possible and didn't look down.
About two-thirds of the way up there was an indentation in the cliff face. This was spanned by a bridge of sorts, four small logs tied together and slightly flattened on top. All the way up Pat stared at the steps next to the cliff, and she definitely did not want to look down, but on the bridge the cliff receded and she could see all the way to the ground. She moaned and swayed, but before she could fall the guard walking behind her grabbed her arm.
"What's the matter? Not afraid of heights, are you?" The guard's contempt for such a weakness was very evident.
Pat lied, "Of course not. I just felt a bit dizzy. It must be the heat." And my reluctance to spatter myself all over the rocks way down there.
Finally they were on the top of the cliff. Pat found herself next to a solid line of buildings that extended from this cliff edge to another cliff edge several hundred paces away. This outer wall of the buildings was three stories high. The lower two stories were just a blank wall of plaster-covered mud brick, but small windows, no bigger than arrow slits, were scattered along the third story. Above this was a waist-high parapet around the rooftop. Three watchtowers, one at each end and one in the middle, extended out from the wall and overtopped it by about five paces.
There were two gates in the wall, one near each outer watchtower. These were made of vertical logs spaced a hand-width apart and bound with iron straps. The gate could be locked by a pair of logs that were controlled from inside the building. A head-deep ditch ran along the base of the wall, spanned at the gates by log bridges. The ground outside the wall was nearly level, and all of the vegetation had been removed for a distance of several hundred paces.
Once the captives were on top the warriors followed. Alena was the last person up, and she received a cheer from the people who were standing on the roof to watch the return of the war party. She acknowledged the cheers with a wave and shouted, "Well done, warriors! This war party is dismissed, except for Clera and her squad."
The warriors dispersed, most going through the gate and into the city. Alena said, "Clera, take the loads to the storerooms, and then bring the captives to the chiefs' conclave. I'll tell the chiefs we're back."
"Right. All right, get moving, you lazy Pa'jaks." Clera led the way, and the four pairs of captives followed, flanked by the guards.
Pat was the last one through the gate. She found herself in a tunnel-like passage through the building. It was narrow, just wide enough for the load she and Iona were carrying. The ceiling was pierced with arrow slits. Another gate stood at the far end. This was tended by a warrior, who closed and barred it once Pat had passed through. Pat found herself in an open space about twenty paces wide, with the far side bounded by a wall of buildings similar to the one she just passed through. This second wall wasn't as long as the outer wall. I remember now. Iona said this city was located where two rivers met. A waist-high wall ran along the cliff edges. Several small naked children, all girls, were playing in the dirt.
A guard led Pat and Iona into a storeroom on the ground floor of the outer row of buildings. Inside were several piles of shields, each from a different city. Their shields were put in the Pa'jk pile, and then it was on to another storeroom where the two bundles were unloaded. The guard took the pole off and linked Pat and Iona by a short rope tied around their necks.
They were taken through another pair of gates and into the third section of Ce'jk, which was clearly triangular. Numerous free-standing buildings were scattered around. Pat saw smoke rising from one building and heard the sound of metal hitting metal. Must be a forge. Another building had a pile of hides next to it and gave off a terrible reek. That's certainly a tannery.
Pat and Iona were led over to a large circular building located at the apex of the triangle. The conical roof was supported by vertical logs and was thatched with grass. The walls were open, except for a continuation of the waist-high parapet along the cliff edge. The floor was elevated on a knee-high mud brick platform. The only furniture was a long wooden bench with a high back. A woman sat on the floor at one end of the bench. She had a frame holding two spools of thick thread; one black and one white.
Three old women sat on the bench. They faces were wrinkled and their hair was gray, except for their braided crests, which were a faded red. Their necklaces had many beads, all of them gold. Alena was standing in front of the bench. The captives were formed into a line behind her, with the guards behind them.
The woman seated in the center of the bench spoke. "So, Alena, It appears that your raid was successful. Congratulations. You did well, especially as this was your first foray as a war leader."
"Thank you, Ald, but my platoon deserves the credit. We captured these eight warriors from Pa'jk on the Plains River, about two days travel upstream from here."
Ald turned to the seated woman. "Prepare a message string saying we have captured eight Pa'jak warriors. Then take it to the cote and give it to the birdkeeper."
The stringscribe pulled some thread from a spool and started to knot it, but Lea interrupted. "Seven warriors, Ald. The one with the strange hair and eyes is not from our city. We captured her just before we were attacked by the savages."
"Oh? I wondered about her." Ald asked Pat, "What is your city?"
"I don't have one." Here we go again.
"No city? That is strange. Do you have a name?"
"Yes, my name is Pat."
"I've never heard that name before. You are indeed strange. I've heard of people with one hair color, but I've never seen one before."
The old woman on the left spoke. "She is surely touched by The Mother. We do not want to do anything that would bring Her wrath down upon us."
"I agree, Blev. We certainly don't want to interfere with a plan of The Mother, but we don't know what that plan is. Until it is revealed to us I propose that we treat her as we would any captive warrior. Agreed?"
Blev and Weim, the other chief, both nodded. Blev said, "Yes. That is a good plan. May The Mother bless us."
Ald continued, "The latest information we have tells us that Pa'jk holds six of our warriors. The Summer Peace is not far off, so all of these captives will be exchanged except for the patrol leader. It will not be necessary to collar them, the usual leather restraints will be enough. Take charge of them, Clera. Confine them now, and they will be assigned tasks tomorrow."
Clera nodded and she and her squad led away all of the captives except Pat and Lea.
Ald ordered, "Alena, you take the other two to the smith, and then confine them."
Alena said, "I request that you assign Pat to me. I'll watch her."
Ald smiled, "I know you'll do more than watch her, Alena. But yes, you can have her."
Alena felt a surge of lust. She thought, Pat's mine! And if she doesn't have a city, she won't be exchanged away from me!
Alena connected Pat and Lea with a rope around their necks. She marched them over to the smithy. "Hail, Vreka. Some business for you."
The smith, a very muscular woman with a shaved head, replied, "Hail, Alena. I heard you made a good catch. Where's the rest of 'em?"
"Everyone else will be exchanged at the solstice. These two are the only permanent guests, so we need to give them the usual decorations."
"Right. Take them over to the anvil." The smith put a handful of rivets onto the coals in the forge and pumped the bellows. While the rivets were heating she got four semicircles of iron from a shelf. They were half a thumb-length wide and a quarter that thick, and had a radial flange on each end with a hole punched through it. Vreka put them together and switched them around until she had two pairs whose holes lined up.
"We'll do the one with the funny hair first, Alena."
Alena removed the rope around Pat's neck. "Kneel, Pat. Put your head down, next to the anvil." Pat complied, and Vreka dipped a cloth into a large pottery jar filled with water. She draped it over Pat, covering her neck and part of her head and shoulders. Alena fitted the two halves of a collar around Pat's neck and lined them up so the holes matched. "Hold still and you won't get burnt. Vreka knows what she's doing." Pat squeezed her eyes shut and hoped for the best.
Vreka grasped a rivet in her tongs and inserted it from below into the holes in the flanges on one end of the collar. Alena moved Pat sideways so the head of the rivet rested on the anvil, and Vreka hammered it flat. She dipped some water from the pottery jar and cooled the rivet. Alena rotated the collar around Pat's neck while Vreka got another rivet from the forge. She inserted it in the collar, hammered it flat, and cooled it.
Alena removed the cloth and helped Pat stand up. "See, not a blister anywhere. We didn't even set your hair on fire." She gave Pat a hug.
Vreka grumped, "Let's do the next one, Alena. I got other things to do."
Alena hugged Pat again. "So do I."
Alena helped Lea kneel by the anvil and her collar was riveted in place.
Alena tied Pat and Lea together with a rope tied to their collars. She grasped the center of the rope. "Now on to the leather smith's shop for your bracelets and anklets."
Pat asked, "Does that mean you'll untie us? You won't need the bracelets; I think my arms are dead."
Alena smiled and touched Pat's hand. "You'll recover. Your hands are still warm." And so is the rest of you. But not as hot as I'm getting.
Alena towed Pat and Lea to another of the small buildings. The leather smith was just about to close. "I didn't think there were any more captives, Alena."
"Just these two, Mari. They won't be exchanged, so they were collared. Sorry to keep you."
"No matter. Bring them in."
Once inside the shop Alena untied Lea's arms. They dropped limply to her sides and she gasped at the movement. Mari had a string with lengths marked and she used it to measure the circumference of Lea's wrists.
Mari rummaged around in a leather bin until she found a bracelet of the correct size and fitted it around Lea's right wrist. It was made of heavy leather, about three fingers wide, and had two small and one large hole punched in each end, in a triangular pattern. Mari aligned the pairs of small holes and put an iron staple through them. She used a small block of iron as an anvil and hammered the staple flat, locking the bracelet on Lea's wrist. The two large holes were on a rounded flap of leather outside of the staple, and they also lined up.
Mari attached a bracelet to Lea's other wrist. Alena held Lea's hands together in front and aligned the holes in each bracelet. She took a rope from her pouch and threaded it through the bracelet holes until it was centered and tied it there. She wrapped the ends of the rope around Lea's waist and tied it in the back.
Alena helped Lea sit on a low stool. Mari measured her ankles and fastened leather bands around them. These were similar to the bracelets except they were wider. Alena tied a hobble rope between them and pulled Lea to her feet.
Then it was Pat's turn. She wasn't as stoic as Lea, and yelped when the rope was finally removed from her arms. She couldn't move them at all, and Alena had to hold them in place while Mari did the measuring and stapling. As with Lea, Alena tied Pat's hands together in front with the rope around her waist. Once the anklets were stapled around Pat's ankles Alena hobbled her.
The four women exited the shop. Alena said, "Thanks, Mari."
"Was nothing. Congratulations on your foray. I always knew you'd be a good leader." She hurried towards the communal kitchen.
Clera jogged up to the group. "I'm glad I found you, Alena. I'll take Lea off your hands. The chiefs said I could have her."
"What? Does this mean you're giving up one-night stands? You do realize that you have to keep Lea with you at night or lose her custody?"
"Of course I know that!"
Alena laughed, "Oh, I know! You must be planning to start a permanent orgy, with Lea as the base and your girlfriends as the filler."
"I am not! You spoke so highly of monogamy that I thought I'd try it. At least for a while."
"Good for you." Alena untied the connecting rope from Pat's collar and handed it to Clera. "Here she is. Have fun." She tied a longer rope to Pat's collar and gave it a tug. "We'll go to my room, Pat. That's a nice thing about being a war leader, I get a room of my own."
Alena led Pat through the gate in the inner row of buildings and across the courtyard to about the middle of the outer row. There was a ladder made from round poles lashed together with leather thongs propped against the wall. Alena chirped, "Up you go. I live on the top level."
Pat balked. "You're joking! How can I climb a ladder with my hands tied to my waist?"
"What's the problem? Everyone can climb a short ladder like this no-handed."
"I don't think so. I have a problem with heights. Can't you just untie me?"
"You're always scheming to escape, aren't you? Alena laughed. "Your story is so incredible even a nubbin wouldn't believe it. How can you live in a city if you're afraid of heights? I should give you a beating for your disrespect, but I'll humor you this time." Alena moved close behind Pat and put her hands on Pat's bare bottom. "Climb. I'll support you."
Pat slowly climbed the ladder. The hobble between her ankles was just long enough to allow her to step between the rungs. Finally she was at the top. The wall of this level was set back about a pace, forming a narrow balcony. There wasn't any parapet. The ladder to the next higher level started where the lower ladder ended. Pat leaned forward until she could grab a rung with her bound hands.
"Why are you stopping, Pat? Now you are beginning to annoy me. Do you want a beating?"
Pat could tell that Alena was serious this time. She really didn't want a beating, so she forced herself to climb the next ladder. This level also had a narrow balcony with no parapet, with another ladder to the roof starting from the top of the lower ladder. Pat realized she'd have to step sideways to get off the ladder and she froze in panic until Alena grabbed her waist. She tottered off the ladder and moved as close to the wall as she could.
Alena said,"You're not joking, are you? Incredible! You really do have a fear of heights."
"I wasn't trying to fool you, Alena. Maybe I've never lived in a city built on a cliff."
"I've never heard on any city that isn't on a cliff. Come along, my room is this way." Alena guided Pat to a doorway covered by a reed mat. She moved the mat aside and pushed Pat into the room.
The room wasn't large. It was about four paces wide by five paces deep with the door in the right-hand corner. The floor was lime plaster, the same surface as outside on the balcony. Inside, the walls were bare mud brick, unlike the plastered outer walls. Three tall narrow windows, just arrow slits, were spaced along the back wall.
The furnishings were sparse. The bed rested on the floor, along the side wall away from the door. It was just cloth over a wooden frame stuffed full of leaves. A folded blanket woven from narrow strips of fur from small animals was next to the bed. In one back corner of the room was a large pottery jar with a lid and a smaller jar containing water. A large basket and several smaller baskets were grouped in the other back corner. A three-legged wooden stool was off to one side.
Alena unslung her shield and hung it up on a peg set into the wall next to the door. She removed the belts holding her bow and quiver and hung them on another peg. "Home at last." She removed Pat's gourd and pouch and hung them with her bow. She asked, "Do you have to pee?" Pat nodded. Alena untied Pat's loincloth and removed it. "You'll be more comfortable without this." She took the lid off the jar and helped Pat squat over it.
With that unpleasant task accomplished, Alena untied the rope around Pat's waist and led her over to the bed. "Lie down, on your back. Put your hands over your head." Pat awkwardly sat down and then stretched out. Alena tied the rope attached to Pat's wrists to an iron ring set in the floor two paces from the end of the bed, and tied the hobble rope to a ring in the floor near the other end. She tightened the ropes so there wasn't any slack, but Pat wasn't stretched far enough to be uncomfortable.
Alena knelt on the bed next to Pat and stroked her hair. "We're going to have a lot of fun together, lover." She kissed Pat's lips. Pat didn't respond. "Playing hard to get, are you? I can change that." Alena unfastened the ties holding Pat's tunic closed. She spread it open and fondled Pat's breasts. Still no response. Alena stood up. "This may take some work. But right now I have to get us food while the kitchen still has some. Wait here, I'll be right back." She pushed aside the mat and left the room. Pat could hear her climb down the ladder.
Pat struggled against her restraints. 'Wait here'. Very funny. I'll be here, no doubt. At least these leather cuffs don't hurt as much as the rope did. She strained against the ropes, but except for some give as the knots tightened there was no movement.
It wasn't long before Alena returned. She was carrying a pottery jar. "Here we are, lover. The meal tonight is kalet stew, my favorite."
Pat's stomach growled. "It smells good." Whatever kalet is.
Alena removed the belt holding her ax and hung it on a peg next to her shield. She knelt next to the rope securing Pat's hands and struggled to undo the knots holding it to the iron ring. "Ugh. You must have struggled like a kalet in a trap." Finally the rope came loose. "Sit up and put your arms in front." Pat did as commanded and Alena tied the rope around her waist, with the knot in back.
Pat complained, "Do you have to keep me tied up? I promise I won't try to escape."
"Sorry, I can't untie you. Your promise is not binding, because it's a warrior's duty to escape, and deception is honorable. Besotted warriors have released their captives before. The consequences were usually bad, and sometimes tragic. The chiefs have made a strict rule that captives must be restrained at all times, especially when there is no Peace, because then you could honorably kill anyone blocking your escape."
Pat shrugged. It had been worth a try. "I'm going to have trouble eating with my hands tied like this."
Alena giggled, "I'll feed you. It'll be fun". She picked up the pottery jar and dipped a wooden spoon into its contents. "Open up."
Pat obediently accepted the spoonful of stew. She sensed grain, vegetables, and chunks of meat, presumably kalet, all blended in a spicy gravy. "Tastes good."
Alena ate a spoonful of stew. "Everyone likes it. We're lucky the kalets breed so quickly." She fed Pat another spoonful. This continued until the jar was empty.
It was getting dark in the room. A young girl carrying a small oil lamp appeared in the doorway. "Light, war leader?"
"Yes, please." The girl took down a lamp from a shelf next to the door, lit it, and moved on.
Alena moistened a cloth and wiped Pat's face. "Where do you come from, Pat? Is there some reason you must conceal the name of your city?"
"I'm not concealing anything. I just don't know where I'm from. My memory is blank. All I can remember is my name."
Alena said, "I'll name the cities of the People. Tell me if any sound familiar." She recited a list of names.
Pat listened carefully. She shook her head. "No, I don't recognize any of these names."
"Ah, well. Perhaps your memory will return. Maybe one of the other captives will recognize you, or one of the traders who visit here during the Peace will know where you're from. If a city can claim you, you might be exchanged."
Alena untied the rope around Pat's waist. "Lie back, lover". Pat complied, and Alena tied the rope to the ring.
Alena removed her tunic and loincloth and blew out the lamp. It was very dark. "Now we can play, lover." She stretched out on the bed next to Pat and fondled Pat's breasts and kissed her lips. Pat didn't respond. Alena increased the tempo, stroking Pat's body and exploring Pat's mouth with her tongue. Her fingers cupped Pat's mound and probed deep into Pat's vagina. This finally produced a response. Pat winced as Alena's fingers rubbed her dry membranes.
Alena sat up. "What's the matter, Pat? Don't you find me attractive?"
"You're very attractive. I'm just not interested in sex." Pat realized she was treading on dangerous ground. She was at Alena's mercy. She had already been threatened with a beating, and if Alena wanted her dead an 'accident' would be easy to arrange. She hastily clarified her statement. "I'm not interested in sex with anyone. If I were, you'd be my first choice."
"Have you ever been interested in sex?"
"I don't know. I can't remember ever having sex, but I can't remember most things. I'm really sorry. I would like to have sex with you, but my body won't respond."
Alena knelt across Pat's body and brought her crotch close to Pat's face. "If I can't make you respond, maybe you can make me respond. Get busy with your tongue."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Surely you know where the sensitive parts of a woman's body are located. Lick them!"
Pat extended her tongue and tentatively licked Alena's outer labia. "Is this what you want?"
"It's a start, but just barely. You really don't know how to please a woman, do you?"
"Maybe my body does, but I can't remember. I didn't know how to put on my arm guard, but I could do it without thinking about it. It might be the same with sex." Pat yawned. "I'm so tired it's hard to think about anything."
Alena moved onto the bed next to Pat. "All right, we'll stop for now. Go to sleep."
The next morning Alena nudged Pat just after dawn. "Time to get up! It's a bright new day."
"Ug. I want to sleep."
"Nope, get up." Alena untied the ropes holding Pat's wrists and ankles to the floor. She hobbled Pat and helped her stand up.
Pat groaned. "I'm really stiff. I'm not used to carrying heavy loads for long distances."
"You will be by the time you leave here." Alena pissed in the jar and then put on her loincloth and tunic. She help Pat squat over the jar and dressed her in just a tunic. "You'll be tied up all day, and it'll be easier to piss if you don't have to bother with a loincloth."
Alena armed herself with her ax and shield. Pat asked, "Are you going on another patrol today?"
"No. What made you think I was?" Alena slung her shield on her back and fastened the belt holding her axe around her waist.
"You're carrying your weapons."
"All warriors have to keep their weapons close at hand. I won't have to make another patrol for a while. Today I'll be doing my regular job."
"I thought your regular job was war leader."
"No, I'm a plasterer. I'll be working on a new building today."
"What will I be doing?"
"Whatever the labor overseer wants you to do. Most likely it'll be something hard and monotonous."
"Oh, that's something to look forward to."
Alena kissed Pat. "Cheer up. It won't be that bad. You couldn't expect to be allowed to work in the fields, it's too easy to slip away."
Alena tied a rope to Pat's collar and wrapped the rope from Pat's hands around her waist. Pat asked, "Why don't you keep my hands untied until I'm down the ladders? If you don't, it's only a matter of time before I fall and splatter myself all over the ground." Alena shook her head. Pat hurriedly continued, "I'm not going to escape! How could I, when we're in the middle of the city in the daytime, and you've got me on a leash?"
Alena reconsidered. "All right, I'll untie your hands. I don't want you to get hurt." The women descended the ladders. Once they were at ground level Alena carefully retied Pat's hands together in front. "I'll leave the waist rope off so you can feed yourself." She pulled on Pat's leash and led her to the kitchen, which was in a building located near the forge, in the innermost part of the city.
Pat and Alena joined a line of women waiting to collect their food. Iona was in line just ahead of them. She greeted Pat. "Pat! I'm glad to see you!" She intensely scrutinized Alena and licked her lips. "So the war leader claimed you. Lucky you!" Iona's hands were tied behind her back and a rope leash around her neck was held by a teenaged girl with no beads on her necklace. Iona pointed to her with her chin. "This is Pela. Cute, isn't she? I'll keep a special lookout for her once she becomes a warrior. I'd like her to be my captive." Pela blushed.
Alena laughed. "Stop flirting, one-bead. it's a good thing you're going to be exchanged. You're a threat to every relationship in the city."
Alena pointed to the chief's building at the apex of the city. "Look!" she exclaimed. Tomorrow is the solstice."
Pat asked, "How can you tell?"
"See that red ball over the door? Tomorrow it will be taken down and the Peace symbol will be raised. I didn't realize the solstice was so close. I've got a lot to do before I'm ready to go to Big Bluff."
"Why do you want to go to Big Bluff?"
"I'm in charge of the lime kilns, where we convert limestone to quicklime for plaster. I want to get to Big Bluff as soon as I can to see if the kilns need any repairs."
"You only go to Big Bluff during a Peace?"
"Yes, because there are some tasks that can't be interrupted, such as smelting ore, and you can't work and fight at the same time. During a Peace all we have to do is look out for savages, and they never go into the mountains."
"How far is it to Big Bluff? It's hard to tell just by looking at it from here."
"It's less than a day's journey for a warrior carrying only weapons, but the loaded caravans take two days. There's a spring at a good stopping place, and they camp there overnight. You'll see soon enough. I want you with me. I'll show you how to burn lime."
"If I learned how to burn lime would that give me a skill valuable enough to earn me a Ce'jk medallion?"
"The chiefs would have to decide that, but it would be something in your favor." Alena hugged Pat. "I'd love it if you stayed here always."
They reached the head of the food line and each woman collected a bowl full of mush. Pat and Alena sat on the ground next to the kitchen wall and spooned up the food. Pat didn't know what the grain was, but it tasted good. The mush was seasoned with small chunks of fried meat.
Alena put the empty bowls in a basket carried by a young girl and the two women walked to the plaza in front of the chief's building. There was already a group of captives there, some, like Pat, with warriors, and others, like Iona, with younger women. Lea and Clera were part of the group. A squad of warriors with axes in their hands stood guard.
The captives were being organized and dispatched by a woman with unusual hair; black with a white crest. Her necklace contained ten copper beads, but no gold beads. When she saw Alena she hurried over to her.
"Hello, Alena. Is this your new toy?" She glared at Pat.
"She has been assigned to me, Jaid."
"I have just the job for her." Jaid noticed Lea and Clera. "And the other collared one, too." Jaid beckoned to a guard and pointed to the two captives. "These two will work on the water lift today. Take them over there and hitch them up."
The warrior replied, "Yes, Overseer." She linked Pat and Lea together by tying Lea's leash to Pat's collar.
Clera kissed Lea. "See you tonight, lover." Alena said nothing.
The warrior motioned for Pat and Lea to walk ahead of her. Lea seemed to know where she was going so Pat followed. Their destination was a cistern built at right at the edge of the cliff. It was a waist-high structure made of mud bricks coated inside and out with plaster. It was covered with a roof of logs sealed with plaster. The roof had a cutout at the inner edge, and three steps led up to a small square platform next to it. A young girl climbed to this platform and filled her pottery jar with water.
On the other side of the cistern a trestle made of logs extended out from the cliff top. A pottery trough went along one edge of the trestle from its outer end to the cistern, where it penetrated the roof. A pair of vertical posts at the very end of the trestle supported a pulley. A rope ran around the pulley and disappeared over the cliff.
The other end of the rope was tied to a wooden bar that connected two wide leather belts. The warrior laced one belt around Lea's hips and the other around Pat's. She tied their wrist cuffs to the belt, just in front of their hips, and took the leashes off their collars. The ends of the wooden bar were riveted to the centers of the belts, and it kept Pat's and Lea's hips separated by about a hand-length.
Once Lea and Pat were secured the warrior was replaced by Pela. She asked, "Do you want some water?"
Lea answered, "Not right now, thanks."
Pat said, "Me neither, Pela. What are we going to do, Lea?"
"Lift water. What did you think we were going to do?"
"I guessed that much. I mean, what's the procedure?"
"Oh. See that girl on the trestle?"
A teenaged girl walked out to the end of the logs and looked down. Pat's stomach twisted at the sight. She croaked, "Yes."
Lea explained, "The workers on the ground will fill a big jar tied to the end of the rope with water from the river. When it's full the girl on the trestle will signal Pela, and she'll tell us to go. We walk until the jar is at the top and Pela tells us to stop. The trestle girl empties the jar into that trough, and the water flows into the cistern. We turn around and walk back here. Repeat until the cistern is full."
There was a line of women waiting to fill their jars from the cistern. Lea said, "It looks like a lot of building is going on today, and that takes a lot of water. It's going to be a long, hard day."
So it turned out to be. Except for a few brief pauses while Pela gave them water and let them pee, Lea and Pat worked continuously until noon. Finally they were able to sit down while Pela fed them. Pat was tired. She and Lea didn't have to strain really hard to lift the jar full of water, but they had to do it over and over again.
Pela fed the two captive women and herself from a large bowl of kalet stew. When it was empty she said, "I'm going to take the bowl back to the kitchen. You aren't going to try to escape, are you?
Lea replied, "Sure we are. I know a magic spell that will change these belts and the cuffs into wings, and we'll fly away."
Pela laughed, "I don't believe that." But she tied Lea's ankle cuffs together anyway before she left.
Pat asked, "Why does Jaid have all those copper beads on her necklace but no gold beads?"
Lea waited until Pela was out of earshot before replying. "Jaid used to be a war leader, but she lost her gold beads because she did something dishonorable. I asked Clera about it, but she wouldn't give me a direct answer. Whatever it was, it would shame this city if word got around."
"Jaid doesn't seem to like me. Do you know why? I never saw her before today."
"Jaid and Alena used to be a couple, but they broke up when Jaid lost her beads. Jaid is probably jealous of you."
Pat groaned, "I sure am lucky. I guess that means I won't get any of the easy jobs."
The afternoon was longer than the morning. Pat's leg muscles were aching and the belt bit into her hips. She often felt like stopping, but Lea never faltered, and pride forced Pat to keep up. The building activity slacked off near the end of the day and Pat and Lea were finally able to fill the cistern.
Pat asked Pela, "Can we sit down now?"
Pela replied, "Yes, but you still have to be tied to the rope. Your job doesn't end until sundown."
Pat and Lea sat down near the cistern. Pat's arms were stiff and she flexed them, pulling against the leather cuffs around her wrists. She whispered to Lea, "I've got a personal problem. Maybe you can help me."
"What is it? I'll help if I can."
"Alena made love to me last night, but my body wouldn't respond. This upset her, and I don't want it to happen again. What should I do?"
"Do what women have always done. Fake it."
"I don't think I can do that and make her believe me. What really worries me is that I can't please her. I really don't want to make her angry, but I just don't know what to do. Can you tell me how to satisfy her?
Like most women, Lea was very willing to talk about sex in graphic detail, and she provided Pat with a step-by-step procedure to follow. Pat struggled to remember all she was told.
Finally Lea asked, "Any questions?"
"I can't think of any. I hope I can remember everything tonight."
"Too bad we're fastened to this bar. You could do a trial run on me."
It was just before sundown. Pat did think of a few more questions for Lea, but Alena and Clera arrived to claim them before she could ask them.
Alena knelt on one knee and kissed Pat's cheek. "Hello. lover. Did you have a good day?"
"Just wonderful. How about you?"
"It went well. I finished plastering the new building. I'll be able to leave for Big Bluff tomorrow morning."
"Will you take me with you?"
"No, you'll travel with the caravan. I won't see you until the day after tomorrow, when it reaches the Big Bluff camp." Alena unfastened Pat's wrist cuffs from the belt and tied them together behind her back. She took the belt off Pat's hips and helped her to stand up. "We'll get some food and then go to my room."
"I'm dirty and sweaty. Any chance of a bath?"
"We could go down to the river."
Pat thought about the narrow stairs chiseled into the side of the cliff. She shuddered. "Uh, I'll skip the bath."
The women walked over to the kitchen. Alena put her left arm around Pat's shoulders and gave her a hug. Pat smiled and kissed Alena's cheek.
Alena said, "Wow! A spontaneous demonstration of affection. I never expected that."
Pat protested, "I've always felt affection for you. I just don't remember how to display it, even though I've wanted to."
"If that's true let's eat now, so we can go to my room and see how much you can remember about how to please a woman."
The meal tonight was chunks of meat grilled on a skewer and an orange vegetable, boiled and mashed together with spices. Alena collected rations for them and they sat near the kitchen wall to eat. Alena kept Pat's hands tied behind her back and fed her slowly and lovingly. Pat experienced a new and strange feeling, helplessness combined with attraction. It scrambled her emotions, and she wondered if this was a strange new kind of love, one she had never experienced before.
When they finished eating Alena helped Pat to her feet and they continued on to the ladder that led up to Alena's room. Pat expected Alena to untie her, but she was disappointed. Alena said, "You'll never fit into the city unless you lose your fear of heights and learn to climb ladders without using your hands. Up you go! I'll be right behind you to steady you if you lose your balance."
"No, please don't make me do this! I'll fall off and kill us both."
Alena smacked Pat's bottom. "You will do this. No more stalling! Go all the way to the top without stopping."
Still Pat hesitated. "Climb!" Alena ordered. "Don't force me to beat you."
Gulping down her fear, Pat started up the ladder. Alena stayed close behind her. Amazingly, Pat made it all the way to the top without falling. The only time Alena had to put a hand on her bottom to steady her was at the top, where Pat had to step sideways to transition from the ladder to the balcony.
Alena chirped, "Here we are! That wasn't so bad, was it?"
"Maybe not for you. You weren't one step away from a hideous death."
"Oh, don't grump. Pat. A bit more practice and you'll climb the ladders without even thinking about it." Alena moved the mat blocking the door to her room. "Inside, lover. The sooner we get started the longer we have to try to find out what you remember."
Once inside the room Alena stripped off her tunic and loincloth. She said, "Turn around, and I'll retie your hands in front."
Pat shook her head. "Keep them tied behind my back. If they're tied in front you'll have to stretch me out and tie me to the floor rings, and that'll keep me from moving around on your body."
"All right, but I can't leave you too free to move around. Sit next to the bed." Alena looped a rope through a floor ring and tied both ends to Pat's collar. "Now you can move, but you can't reach any knots." She opened Pat's tunic and pushed it down to her bound wrists.
Pat said, "Lie down, on your side, facing me." Alena complied, and Pat joined her on the bed. Pat kissed Alena, and their tongues met. This went on for quite a while, and Pat could hear Alena's breathing quicken. She slithered down so her mouth was opposite Alena's breasts and licked a nipple. Alena responded by clutching Pat's head and moaning. Pat thought, 'This seems to be working. What's next on Lea's list? Ah, I remember.'
Pat whispered, "Roll onto your back." Alena did, and Pat applied a string of kisses to her belly, going down until she reached the mass of hair covering Alena's mound. She slipped farther down, then extended her tongue and started to probe Alena's lips. She rubbed her tongue on Alena's clit. Alena gasped and hugged Pat's head between her thighs. Pat continued probing until Alena screamed and spasmed.
Pat was jostled by Alena's convulsions until she was able to get her head loose from Alena's clutching thighs. Alena eventually regained enough control to find the rope tied to Pat's collar and pull it until Pat's head was next to hers. She panted, "That was wonderful. You remembered a lot." She hugged Pat and crushed their breasts together.
"I didn't really remember. Lea told me what I should do. I'm glad I pleased you."
"That you did." Alena yawned.
Pat and Alena stayed locked together for some time. Pat whispered, "Alena? Could you tie my hands in front now?" There was no response from the sleeping Alena. Pat extricated herself and rolled onto her front. She muttered, "This is going to be an uncomfortable night. I hope I can get some sleep." She closed her eyes.
The next thing Pat knew Alena was shaking her. "Wake up! It's already after sunrise."
Pat tried to move her tied arms and groaned. They were stiff and painful. Alena said, "You should have woken me! I could have tied you in a more comfortable position."
"I didn't want to disturb you."
"You should have. I don't want to hurt you unless I have to." Alena smoothed Pat's tunic into place and untied her hands.
"Unless you have to?" Pat moaned as Alena massaged her shoulders.
Alena smiled. "Discipline must be maintained, and you will learn to climb ladders without using your hands."
Alena was fully dressed, with her ax sheathed at her side and her shield and bow slung on her back. She untied one end of the rope on Pat's collar to use as a leash. They left the room and stopped at the top of the ladder. Alena said, "I'm not going to tie your hands until we reach the ground, but I want you to go down the ladder without using them. If you do, I'll punish you later. Understand?"
Pat nodded and began the perilous descent. Alena follow her closely, and several times Pat used the leash to regain her balance. Once successfully down, she exclaimed, "I did it!"
Alena snorted. "Not really. You needed to pull on the leash several times." She tied Pat's cuffs together in front. "Let's eat. I want to get on the trail."
After they ate Alena took Pat to the plaza where the labor gangs were being organized. "Goodbye, lover. I'll see you at Big Bluff the day after tomorrow. I can hardly wait." They kissed. Alena handed Pat's leash to one of the guards, and she was off, striding across the plaza. Pat watched her until she was out of sight.
Jaid saw Pat at once, and soon Pat and Lea were harnessed to the water lift once again, with Pela as their minder. It was different today. The water jar had been replaced by a large wicker basket, and instead of lifting water up Pat and Lea were lowering bundles down the cliff. The whole city swarmed with people shifting goods.
Everything stopped at noon. People crowded around the chief's building and lined the roofs and balconies of the buildings that overlooked it. Even Pat and Lea were there. A warrior unhitched them from the lift and tied their hands behind their backs. She joined their collars with a rope and led them to the back of the crowd on the plaza. At precisely noon the senior chief removed the red ball and replaced it with a fan of blue and white feathers. The crowd cheered. The Peace had officially begun.
Eventually the people dispersed. Pat, Lea, and their guard sat down in the shade of the chief's building and waited for Pela to bring them some food. This took some time because of the crowd around the kitchen.
Iona found them. She was carrying her shield and weapons, since the exchange of prisoners took place the instant the Peace was proclaimed. She kissed Lea. "Once the Peace is over I'll capture a lot of Ce'jk warriors. I'll make sure you're exchanged at the next Peace".
Lea returned the kiss. "Thanks, Iona. You've given me something to live for."
Iona saluted and left. Pela arrived with food, and the four women ate, Pela feeding Pat and the warrior feeding Lea. The had just finished when Jaid arrived. She commanded, "Take Lea and find some work for her. The other one is going to Big Bluff. I'll take care of her." She untied the rope from Lea's collar and used it to yank Pat to her feet.
Jaid led Pat to the stairs going down the cliff. Pat was terrified. It would be so easy for Jaid to make her fall. This threat preoccupied her so much that she wasn't bothered by the height. When she reached the ground she was surprised to be alive. Jaid ordered, "Down the river and around the point. The caravan is forming up west of the city."
The women followed the trail below the cliff and came to the junction of the Plains River with the Big River. The water level was low at this time of year and it was easy for them to wade the Big River. The caravan was waiting there, about fifty carts lined up along the trail leading to Big Bluff.
Each cart was made from three poles, arranged in a triangle. The base of the triangle faced forward, and was wide enough to allow two people to stand side-by-side along it, inside the other poles. These outside poles were about twice as long as the base pole, and their apex at the back of the cart was supported by a small wheel cut from a log. Just forward of the wheel was a wicker basket for the cargo. All of the carts except the last one were crewed by two teenagers. About fifty armed warriors were intermingled with the carts. Pat was the only captive.
Jaid led Pat to the last cart. "Get inside the poles," she ordered. Jaid released Pat's hands from behind her back and tied her wrist cuffs to the front pole, about a shoulder width apart.
The caravan commander asked sarcastically, "Are you ready now, Jaid? Can we start?"
Jaid flushed at the insult but said only, "Ready, Melia."
Melia shouted, "Forward!". All of the cart girls leaned against their poles and the carts creaked into motion.
Pat also pushed on her pole, but the cart didn't move. Jaid said, "Too heavy, Pat? Somehow this cart got loaded with a lot of iron tools. How did that happen? You need some encouragement." Jaid was carrying a cane, and she slashed the back of Pat's thighs, just below her tunic. Pat yelped and pushed harder. The cart started to move.
Pat couldn't keep up with the rest of the caravan. Jaid allowed her to fall behind until all the other carts were out of sight. For the first few hours the trail was flat and the dry ground was hard. Pat struggled, but she could keep the cart moving at a slow walk. When they came to a small hill this changed. She strained to move the cart. Jaid tucked the hem of Pat's tunic into her collar and hit her bare back with the cane. Pat screamed, and struggled to keep the cart moving. Jaid kept hitting her, and by the time they reached to top of the hill Pat's back was covered with swollen red welts. Pat was exhausted, but she recovered some as the trail went downhill.
The next hill was higher. Long before she reached the top Pat was spent. Finally she collapsed, and she couldn't get up. Jaid kept hitting her, but the only results were screams and moans. Pat begged, "Please stop. I can't work any more."
Jaid snarled, "Yes you can, Pat. I can hurt you so much you'll beg me to let you work."
Melia and four warriors materialized on the trail. Melia ordered, "That's enough, Jaid! Stop hitting her." She and the warriors looked at Jaid with contempt.
Jaid blustered, "I'm the labor overseer. If I want to discipline a lazy slave that's my right."
"This isn't discipline, this is torture. I wondered why you weren't keeping up with the caravan." Melia inspected the load in the wicker basket and removed three large bundles of iron pickax heads. "We'll divide these among the other carts. That will help you to keep up." She untied Pat's wrists and carried her to the side of the trail. "Until she recovers you can push the cart alone, Jaid."
Jaid protested, "I'm a warrior! I don't have to push a cart."
"Warriors are expected to do anything that's necessary. I gave you an order, Jaid. Are you going to obey it, or do you want to lose the rest of your beads?" Melia snatched Jaid's cane from her hand and broke it in two.
Jaid glared at Melia, but she got inside the cart poles and pushed it along the trail.
Melia said, "Geta, you stay with Pat until she recovers enough to walk. Give her some water. The rest of you bring those pickaxes. It's time to eat. I'll stop the caravan."
It was a while before Pat could move. When Pat could walk Geta tied her hands behind her back and the two women ambled along the trail. Geta was in no hurry, and when they caught up with the caravan she deliberately stayed back from the cart pushed by Jaid. She took some dried meat from her pouch and shared it with Pat.
The journey continued for the rest of the afternoon. About two hours before sunset the caravan reached the campsite, which was right at the base of the bluff. From here the trail climbed steeply, using many switchbacks. The caravan had covered most of the distance to their destination, but tomorrow's journey would take longer than today's did.
A spring fed a small stream and the stream supported a large grove of trees. A number of brush huts were scattered among the trees, along with benches and tables made from logs. There were many stone-lined fire pits. A large kitchen area featured several stone fireplaces, each with a large iron grill.
Many of the cart girls splashed in the stream, cleaning up after their sweaty labor. Others built fires and started preparation of the evening meal. Warriors were detailed to form a picket line around the camp. It was Peacetime and savages had not been this close to Big Bluff in living memory, but Melia was following standard procedure.
Geta got a blanket from a cart and spread it in the shade of a tree. She said, "Lie here, Pat, and I'll see what I can do about those welts." Pat dropped to her knees and then to her belly. Geta tied her ankles together and untied her wrists. She pulled up Pat's tunic and bared her back. "Nasty. I've got a poultice that should help. It may sting a little." She dripped a gooey green paste from a gourd onto Pat's back and spread it along the welts. Pat gasped, but soon the pain of the welts eased.
Geta said, "You rest here until the food is ready, Pat." Geta tied Pat's wrists to two small trees so her arms were held out to her sides. She wasn't stretched, but she couldn't bring her hands together or reach any knots with her teeth. Pat didn't care. She was too tired and sore to even think about escaping, even if she had somewhere to go. She fell asleep.
Pela shook Pat's shoulder. "Wake up. The evening meal is almost ready." She took a close look at the welts. "I'm sorry you were hurt so badly. I am ashamed this happened. Melia said the chiefs will punish Jaid when they hear about it."
"It wasn't your fault. For some reason Jaid hates me." Pat pulled against the ropes on her wrists. "Can you untie me? I have to pee."
"Yes, Melia gave me permission to untie you. You can stay untied as long as you stay in the camp." Pela untied the ropes holding Pat's arms and the ropes around her ankles. She helped Pat stand up. "I'll go with you to the latrine."
When they returned to the camp the evening meal was ready. Pela and Pat shared a bench after they got their food from the kitchen. Pat said, "This is the first time since I was captured that I haven't been tied. I like it."
"Now that the Peace has started you can't hurt anybody if you try to escape, so you don't have to be tied so tightly." Pela lowered her voice so only Pat could hear her. "Is it true that you didn't just lose your necklace, you never had a necklace?"
"I don't know. I can't remember anything about my past, including where I came from. I don't think I came from any of the cities around here, though."
Pela hugged Pat. "I'm so sorry for you." She yawned. "I'm tired, and tomorrow we have to push the carts up the bluff."
"I'm tired too. Do we sleep anywhere, or are places assigned to us?"
"Nothing's assigned for me, but I don't know about you. There's Geta. I'll ask her." She stood and waved.
Geta asked, "You want something, Pela?"
"Yes. Pat wants to sleep now. Can you help her?"
"Sure. Come with me, Pat." Geta led her to a small brush hut. It was a waist-high half-cylinder woven from small branches. It had once been thatched with grass, but this had blown away and hadn't yet been replaced. There was a stake driven into the ground in front of the door, and a small tree at the other end of the hut.
Pat commented, "This must be the captive's hut."
"Yep. Hold out your hands." Geta tied Pat's cuffs together with a long rope. "Crawl inside the hut and poke the end of the rope through the back." Pat complied, and Geta tied the rope to the tree. She tied Pat's ankle cuffs together and tied them to the stake. "Here's a blanket." Geta spread a fur blanket over Pat's body. "Good night."
Pat found she was surprisingly comfortable. There was a mound of leaves covered with a cloth blanket under her, and a furry blanket over her. She could still feel the welts on her back, but the poultice had relieved most of the pain. She closed her eyes and was instantly asleep.
Dawn was a faint glow on the horizon when Jaid crawled into the hut where Pat was sleeping and shook her awake.
Pat muttered, "What do you want?"
Jaid whispered, "I have a special mission, and you're going to help me with it. Be quiet! We don't want to disturb the camp."
Jaid untied Pat's hands. She ordered, "Now roll on your belly and put your hands behind your back." Pat wasn't happy about this, but she did it anyway. Jaid tied each wrist cuff to Pat's opposite arm just above the elbow. She wrapped more rope around Pat's forearms and knotted it.
Pat complained, "Not so tight. It hurts!"
"You'll hurt a lot more if you keep talking." Jaid untied the rope holding Pat's ankles together and replaced it with a hobble. "Outside!" she commanded.
Pat awkwardly shuffled out of the hut on her knees. Once Pat was outside Jaid pulled her to her feet. She tied a slip knot in a rope and tightened it around Pat's neck. She picked up a pole she had prepared. It was about shoulder-height in length and two fingers thick. One end was sharpened and Jaid jabbed it into Pat's bottom. "Walk, and if you make any noise I'll pull this rope tight."
Jaid guided Pat along the main trail for a short distance and then onto a track that ran perpendicular to it. They walked in silence for about half an hour, Pat in front of Jaid. Jaid kept Pat moving at a fast pace by jabbing her with the stick. Pat asked, "Where are we going?"
"We'll go along this trail for another hour or so. See those hills up ahead? The trail goes between them and then down to Big Spring. It always has water, even if Camp Spring is dry."
"What are we going to do? We can't be going for water, because we didn't bring anything to carry it in."
"Shut up. You'll find out soon enough what we're doing." She jabbed Pat again, much harder. Pat yelped. She didn't ask any more questions.
By the time the women reached the saddle between the hills it was full daylight. The steep slope down to the flatter ground below was rough and rocky and covered with thick brush. It would have been difficult to traverse it without the improved trail. This region was part of a transition zone between the forested mountains and the grassy plains, and the terrain was mostly covered with head-high brush, with an occasional stunted tree.
Once Jaid and Pat were below the slope they walked for another half hour along mostly level ground. Jaid ordered, "Stop over there near that tree." Pat did as she was told. "Now get on your back." Pat did this too. She had been anxious about what Jaid planned ever since they left the camp, and by now her anxiety had escalated to fear. She was only too aware that she was helplessly bound, while Jaid was fully armed with ax, shield, and bow.
The fear intensified when Jaid tied the rope on Pat's neck to the tree. Jaid used her ax to chop the pole she carried into three pieces. She drove one into the ground just beyond Pat's feet and tied Pat's ankles to it with the hobble rope. She forced another stake between the top of Pat's thighs and pounded it into the ground. Pat cried out as the rough bark scratched her thighs and pubes. The third stake went into the ground next to her neck, and Jaid tied her collar to it. She removed the rope linking Pat's neck to the tree.
Jaid said, "You want to know why we came out here? This is what I'll tell anybody who asks: I took you a short way down the trail so we could have sex. Afterward I fell asleep, and you were able to untie yourself and escape. I followed you to bring you back. Unfortunately, you were captured by savages, and they tortured you to death." Jaid collected dead branches from around the tree. She ripped open Pat's tunic and piled them on her bare belly. "This is one of the savages' favorite tricks. They keep the fire small, so you can live for hours while they slowly burn your guts out. But I won't let it go on that long. After a few hours I'll cut your head off. The savages would do that to get your collar. They always want iron."
Pat pleaded, "Why are you doing this? What have I done to you? Don't kill me!"
"You stole the woman I love. With you dead Alena will be mine again."
"But I didn't steal Alena! You two split up long before she met me. Please, please don't torture me."
Jaid smiled. "I want to torture you. I'll enjoy listening to your screams." She shook her water gourd. "I'm going to the spring. I won't be gone long, and when I get back I'll light the fire. Think about what it'll feel like as it eats into your body. I can do anything to you that I wish, and you must accept what I bestow. While I'm gone try to think of some creative pleas for mercy. I want to hear you beg." Jaid smiled again and walked away.
Pat struggled desperately to escape. Her arms were tightly bound and she knew she had no chance of freeing them. The ropes binding her collar and her ankles to the stakes were also secure and the stakes themselves were solid. Pat now realized why Jaid had taken the rope off her neck. Jaid didn't want her to be able to strangle herself. Pat tried to shake her body and make the wood on her belly fall off, but the stake between her thighs immobilized her hips. She muttered, "I can't get away. All I can do now is deny Jaid the pleasure of hearing me scream." She closed her eyes.
Pat could do nothing but wait until Jaid returned. The sun was higher now, shining brightly on her bare body. She heard footsteps and thought, This is it. Nothing to do now but die quietly.
* * *
Alena and her six companions made a quick journey to the Big Bluff camp, and arrived several hours before sunset. Alena make a through inspection of the lime kilns. She was pleased to find that all were undamaged and ready to be fired up as soon as they could be provided with the necessary charcoal and limestone.
The warriors ate a simple evening meal and bedded down soon after sunset. Alena woke up in the middle of the night. She tried to go back to sleep, but all she could think about was Pat. She finally gave up trying to sleep and dressed and armed herself. Two moons were still up, and they provided enough light to let her see the trail. She started down the bluff.
The sun was just visible on the horizon when Alena reached the caravan's camp. She was challenged by a picket and passed through to the center of the camp. She asked a warrior, "Do you know where Pat is?"
"She's in the hut just beyond the kitchen area. Look for the rope tied to the tree behind it."
"Thanks, I'll find it." Pat found the hut, but it was empty. She stopped another warrior, who was just coming off guard duty. "Do you know where Pat is?"
"Yeah, I saw her and Jaid on the trail to Big Spring."
"Why was she with Jaid? Why didn't you stop them?"
The guard shrugged. "A warrior can take a slave girl into the bushes if she wants to. Jaid still has her beads, at least for now."
"When did you see them?"
"It was before dawn, maybe an hour ago."
Alena hurried to the Big Springs trail. There was now enough daylight to let her examine the surface, and she found two sets of footprints heading away from the camp. She increased her pace. She didn't know why Jaid had taken Pat out of the camp, but she feared the worst.
When Alena reached the top of the saddle between the hills she stopped and scanned the horizon. She could see a faint smudge of smoke straight ahead. The footprints led down the slope, and Alena followed them.
Alena continued to follow the footprints. She unsheathed her ax and put her shield on her left arm. She was uneasy. Her warrior intuition told her something was wrong. She moved forward, every sense alert. She spotted a body on the ground near a tree. It was Pat! No one else had her single-color hair. Pat was motionless and her eyes were closed. Alena's heart seemed to stop. She moved forward slowly and looked down on Pat's body.
Pat opened her eyes. "Alena! I thought you were Jaid. I thought I was dead." She started to cry.
Alena crouched next to Pat and kissed her. "I was afraid you were dead. What's happening? Why did Jaid bring you here? Where is Jaid?"
"Jaid was going to torture me to death and blame it on savages. She said she was going to Big Spring. Be careful! She could be close, and she's crazy."
"How long has she been gone?"
"I don't know for sure. How far is it to Big Spring?"
"You could go there and back in about half an hour."
"She's been gone a lot longer than that." Pat squirmed. "Please untie me."
Alena cut the ropes from Pat's ankles and collar and helped her sit up. "We've got to find Jaid. Can you walk?"
Pat moaned when Alena cut the ropes off of her arms. "Yes, it's just my arms that are stiff. Help me up, please."
Alena helped Pat stand. "Stay by me, and be very quiet." Alena circled until she found Jaid's footprints and then followed them slowly, watching carefully for any sign of an ambush. Pat stayed close behind her. They continued like this for about ten minutes, until Pat tapped Alena on the shoulder. "What?" Alena whispered. Pat pointed to a large number of birds circling overhead.
They slowly crept forward. They could hear birds squawking on the ground just ahead. Alena peered around a thick bush. A dead savage lay in a small clearing. Next to it was the headless body of a woman. She had been horribly mutilated, both by the savages and by the carrion birds feeding on the remains.
Pat and Alena moved into the clearing and the birds scattered. Alena said, "This must be Jaid, but I can't tell for sure."
"Look over there." Pat pointed to another bush. Jaid's head, with its distinctive black and white hair, was nestled neck-down under the branches.
"That's Jaid." Alena took a closer look at the head. "The side of her skull is caved in. At least the savages didn't take her alive. But what are savages doing here? They never come this close to Big Bluff. We've got to find out how many more there are. I saw smoke from the top of the saddle. The savages may have a camp close by. This could be very dangerous, Pat."
Pat shrugged. "I'll go anywhere with you."
Alena found more footprints and the two women followed them. Their path was roughly parallel to the small stream flowing away from the spring. Their progress was slow, because they took every precaution to avoid discovery. They could see more smoke now, and its source was close. They crawled up a low ridge. Alena gasped. Several hundred savages were camped along the stream. She whispered, "We've got to warn the caravan! Our warriors couldn't defeat so many savages, and the cart girls..."
Pat asked, "What should we do?"
"Get away from here, very carefully." The two women crept away through the brush. When they were several hundred paces away Alena stopped. "We've got to go faster, even if it means we're spotted." She moved to the trail alongside the stream and jogged along it. Pat followed her.
All went well for while. Then a savage saw them, and he and seven others started a pursuit. The savages were about a hundred paces away. Alena and Pat ran faster. If they were cut off from the trail up to the saddle they could never reach the caravan in time. One of the savages broke away from the pack and sprinted towards them. He collapsed before he closed the distance, but Alena and Pat were forced to expend extra energy. Even so, they were faster than the savages and the distance between them widened.
The women reached the base of the hill and started to climb the trail up the slope. Half way up Alena panted, "I don't think they can catch us now."
Pat glanced back over her shoulder. "Look!" she groaned.
The savages from the initial band of pursuers were slumped on the ground at the base of the hill, but they had been joined by others. One of the new group of savages was pointing up the slope. Another was jogging towards the savages' camp.
Alena paused to look. "Keep going. It's all we can do." They kept climbing the hill. Pat and Alena collapsed as soon as they reached the top. The new group, almost twenty savages, was about 400 paces away. They were walking steadily up the slope towards them, saving their energy until they reached the top.
Alena panted, "It's no use. They'll catch us for sure. I'm too tired to run much farther, and they haven't been running at all."
"It's not that far to the caravan. You can reach it. Give me the bow. I'll stay here and delay them. They have to come up the trail and I can pick them off easily. Most likely they'll retreat after I kill a few."
"No, I can't let you do that. Maybe we can still outrun them."
"No chance of that and you know it. Go! I'll stay."
"A war leader is always the last one to retreat. I'll stay."
"You are a war leader, so the caravan commander will listen to you. I'm just a slave girl."
"She'll listen to you too."
"Melia will want to confirm what I tell her. She'll send out scouts. But it will take too much time. The savages will attack, and everyone will be killed."
Alena nodded. She gave Pat the bow and the quiver. Pat had spoken truly. She had to be the one who warned the caravan. "How many arrows do we have?"
Pat counted the arrows in Alena's quiver. "Eleven."
"When you've shot those you duck into the brush, understand?"
"Sure. Leave your ax and shield."
"You'll run faster without them. Now go!"
Alena dropped her ax and shield. She knew what this meant. The lovers embraced and kissed. Alena jogged down the trail. Pat watched her go. I could slip into the brush right now. The savages would follow Alena and I'd be safe. But I can't do that. Pat strung the bow and put on her thumb ring. She nocked an arrow and looked down the slope. She had a clear view of the entire trail.
The savages were scattered in a long column, with the nearest about 200 paces distant. Pat drew and released her arrow. It hit the leading savage in the abdomen and he fell, howling. Downhill shot. Nothing to it. The others yelled with rage and increased their speed to a trot.
That's it, run! Tire yourselves out! Pat dropped another savage with an arrow through the chest. She was surprised by how she felt. No fear, no anger, just a sort of resignation; regret, really.
The savages kept coming. Pat had to admire their courage. They must have known that the closer they got the better their chance of stopping a fatal arrow.
Pat shot her last arrow when the nearest savage was only 30 paces away. Now there were six of them, and they were all foaming with rage and waving their stone war clubs. They ran uphill towards her. She barely had time to settle the shield on her arm and pick up the ax before the leading savage attacked her. She parried his first blow with her shield and the next with her ax, and her counter swing hit the savage in the knee.
One down! He won't catch Alena! Pat screamed, a cry of challenge and defiance.
The savages drew back. They were panting, tired from running up the slope. The trail was flanked by thick brush and was only wide enough to allow one savage at a time to face Pat. The savages tried to spread out so they could all attack at once, but their movements were hampered by the tangled vegetation.
Pat thought The savages just ran up the hill. They're more tired than I am. I can outrun them now! She turned and sprinted away. There was a cry of rage from the frustrated savages as they struggled through the brush. Pat risked a glance over her shoulder and was relieved to see that none of the savages were pursuing her. She slowed her pace to an easy lope.
When Pat reached the main trail she met a patrol of Ce'jk warriors. She gasped, "Did Alena warn the caravan?"
The patrol leader replied, "Yes. Everyone is returning to the city." The first of the cart girls were just coming into view, hurrying down the trail. "How close are the savages?"
"I don't know." Pat panted for breath. "I didn't see any on the trail up the slope, except the ones that were chasing me and Alena, and they stopped."
"You wait here, Pat. Melia wants to talk to you." Pat nodded, and the patrol leader lead her warriors down the trail.
I'm alive! Pat rejoiced. I'll see Alena again! She realized she was still carrying Alena's ax and shield. The patrol leader had let her keep them. She looked up the trail, now crowded with running bodies, anxious to see Alena. Then the world turned a dazzling white.
* * *
Patience opened her eyes. She was in the bland modernity of the AVRCorp virtual reality lab, seated in a chair surrounded by racks of electronic equipment. Kimberly was standing next to her, dressed as always in her long white lab coat and wearing her dark-rimmed glasses.
Patience demanded, "Why did you bring me back? I don't want to stay in this world! Send me back at once!"
Kimberly shook her head. "We can't do that. Your body will deteriorate if all you do is sit in that chair, and we're still not sure what effect long exposure to the VR world will have on your mind."
"How long have I been gone? What day is it?"
"It's Monday. Early Monday morning."
"The Monday after the party? I've been away for less than three days?"
"That's right. Close your eyes and relax, Pat. It may take a while before you completely reorient yourself and return to the real world. Think back to last Friday, before you entered the VR world, and come forward from there."
Patience closed her eyes and tried to remember. Everything was vague at first, but gradually it coalesced.
Kimberly asked, "Do you remember what happened on Friday?"
"Yes, I remember now. I'm really sorry for what I did. Can you forgive me?"
"Sure, I suppose I can forgive you."
Patience asked, "Do you know everything that happened to me in the VR world?"
"No, not yet. I jumped ahead and looked at the last few hours of the recording."
"Did I pass the test? Are you going to let me go now?" Patience struggled against the broad nylon straps that now bound her to the chair.
"I can't make that decision on my own, Pat. John, Scott, Eli, and I will have to talk about it after we've reviewed the recording. I've got the time compression program processing it now." Kimberly inserted a hypodermic syringe into the IV tube connected to Patience's hand.
"What are you doing?"
"Just giving you a sedative so we can move you to more congenial surroundings. We're going to need the VR lab, and we don't want anyone to know you've been here." She compressed the syringe.
"No! Wait, I ..." Patience slumped in the chair.
Scott entered the VR lab. "I got your message, Kim. Let's get Pat out of here. How long will she be asleep?"
"Three to four hours. Plenty of time to move her."
"Right. John and Eli will meet us at the house."
Scott and Kimberly worked together to free Patience from the chair. Kimberly disconnected the IV. She removed Patience's soggy diaper and undressed her completely. She used cable ties to fasten Patience's hands behind her back and to link her ankles together. Scott left the room and returned with a hand truck and a large cardboard box. They sealed Patience into the box and wheeled it to the loading dock. Scott slid it into the back of his pickup truck. Today was a company holiday. No one was around to witness Patience's removal.
Patience woke up slowly. She was naked and sitting in a padded armchair in the center of a very ordinary living room. The curtains were drawn across all of the windows, but enough sunlight came through to dimly illuminate the room. Her wrists were crossed behind her back and held there by tight cable ties that cut into her skin. Another tie held her ankles together. Scott, Eli, John, and Kimberly sat on a sofa placed against a bare white wall. Kimberly and John were reading and Scott and Eli were talking quietly. When Patience moved they all stopped what they were doing and stared at her.
Patience was very afraid. These four people held her fate in their hands. She tried to speak, but all that emerged from her constricted throat was a soft whimper.
Eli spoke. "We've reviewed the important parts of your VR adventure, Pat. We all agree that you performed a selfless act when you covered Alena's escape. You do appear to have more to your character than naked self-interest. We have decided that you will not be turned over to the police."
Patience cried with relief. "Oh, thank you! I promise I won't say anything about the company to anyone." She moved her shoulders. "Please free my hands. These ties are cutting into my wrists. And can I have some clothes? I don't want to go outside naked."
"You don't quite understand, Pat. We aren't going to turn you over to the police, but we are not going to release you either. You betrayed us once, and we are not going to let you do it again. You are going to stay in this house at least until all of the patents have been issued. You may have to stay longer, maybe until we have a product ready to market. However, if you continue to do your job, and if you do it faithfully, you can keep your stock options and participate in our success."
"You can't hold me against my will! That's kidnapping!"
"Yes, kidnapping is what it is called. And we can do it. Scott posted a message on the company bulletin board saying you had a family emergency and you had to go to your sister's house. Nobody will question this. You can do your work by telecommuting. Most of your group do that now and rarely come into the office. We will censor your email, but you will stay in contact with your group. No one will notice anything unusual."
"You'll never get away with it! Not unless you kill...." Patience blanched as the full implications of what she said struck her.
Eli smiled. "We don't have to kill you, Pat. There will not be any hard evidence that you were kept here against your will. This house isn't traceable to any of us, even if you knew where it was. It is in a quiet suburb, and the neighbors believe the house has been purchased by a couple who are overseas on business and who won't return for several months. If you go to the police with a wild story of being kidnapped it will just be your word against ours. And consider this, Pat. You tried to hurt us, and having to spend some time here is no more than you deserve. It is as though you were sentenced to 'house arrest', but without all of the unpleasant consequences of a criminal record. So relax and do your work. When the project is successful and you are rich you will laugh about all this."
Kimberly cut the tie off of Patience's ankles. "Come on, I'll show you your new home." She pulled the dazed Patience to her feet and led her into the basement.
The basement was unfinished, with unpainted cement-block walls, exposed floor joists, and a bare concrete floor. A toilet and a sink were against one wall in the corner opposite the stairs. A refrigerator and a microwave were next to them. A steel support pole was located about eight feet from the corner walls and a narrow single bed and a computer desk were spaced around it.
Kimberly led Patience to the pole. "Kneel!" she commanded. Patience obeyed.
A medium-weight chain was looped around the pole. Kimberly picked up a steel collar from the floor and slipped it inside a ring at the end of the chain. "This is your collar, Pat. It doesn't have a keyhole. Once it's closed it can't be opened. It has to be cut off." Kimberly closed it around Patience's neck and it locked with a loud 'click'.
"Stand up, and I'll cut those ties off." Patience was happy to obey this command. She rubbed her abraded wrists.
Kimberly explained, "All you need is right here, Pat. There's food in the refrigerator and dishes and other supplies in the cupboard under the microwave. The computer isn't hooked up yet, but I'll take care of that tomorrow. You won't be able to access the Internet, of course, only a private line to AVRCorp. We didn't have much time to set this up, so there are still things left to do. The basement is fairly secure as is, and surprisingly sound proof, but we'll install a steel door and steel plates on the outside of the windows. I'll also bring a in treadmill, so you can exercise. Eventually I'll get you one of those fiberglass showers, and if you behave it'll have hot water. The chain is just long enough to let you reach everything."
Patience asked, "How do I get more food, or anything else I need?"
"I'll bring it. I'll visit you regularly. Actually, I'll be the only person you will ever see. When I come here I'll be disguised as a cleaning lady. No one will notice me. I can wear my usual clothes, the ones I buy at the rummage sale."
"What happens if I get sick?"
"I was a nurse before I got my PhD in neuroscience. You'll just have to hope I remember some of my old skills."
Patience inspected her prison. The windows were small and at the top of the ten-foot walls. They were also painted black and blocked by metal grills. The only light came from fluorescent shop lights fastened to the floor joists and protected by plastic panels. She asked, "How do I turn off the lights?"
"You don't. The switch is upstairs. The lights stay on all the time because of the cameras."
"Cameras? You mean I'll always be watched?"
"Of course you'll be watched. The cameras are remotely accessed, and someone will always know what you're doing. Like Eli said, when you're released far from here there won't be any comebacks, but if you escaped we'd be the ones going to jail. Don't try to get the chain off your neck. If you do we will have to kill you."
Patience snarled, "You can't do this to me! I'm the only one who really understands everything about the software. You need me to successfully complete the project, and unless you let me go I won't work!"
"Don't be difficult, Pat. It's in your interest as well as ours to make the project successful. I've been put in charge of you and I can make you work."
"No you can't! I could turn out garbage and you wouldn't know the difference."
Patience sighed. "There is some truth to that. How about this? You do your best work and every so often you can go back to the VR world for a couple of real-time days."
"The same world? I could see Alena again?"
"Sure, Pat. There wouldn't even be a gap in the VR timeline."
"OK, it's a deal. How soon can I go back?"
"It'll take a while to set up the equipment. I'll give you an estimate later."
"Don't take too long, or I might reconsider."
Kimberly warned, "Don't even think about it. Remember, I can do anything to you that I wish, and you must accept what I bestow."
Patience was shocked. The last time she had heard that phrase she was about to be tortured to death. She stammered, "You were, you were..."
"Jaid?" Kimberly smiled. "Yes, I was. Remember what I told you, Pat? That a person's basic personality remains intact in the VR world? Think about that before you cause me any trouble."
Story copyright© 2008 by Zack. All rights reserved.
I welcome your comments. E-mail me at [email protected]