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By Sue Ann Bowling
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Sue Ann Bowling
All right reserved.
The living sculpture could no longer control its body, even to blink its eyes or turn them away from the horror in the mirror ... No, Flick thought. His eyes. My eyes. I am still I. I am he. He could still hear and feel-if only he could stop hearing, and feeling, and even seeing! His master's body stepped behind his own in the mirror, and the ice and silver eyes of his sculptor's reflection traveled lazily over his distorted body. Zhaim was a handsome creature-oh, yes, with black hair braided into an elaborate crest above the smooth, bronze face, and a body that might have been designed by a far saner sculptor than the owner who had made a distorted mockery of his own body. Flick hated his owner with a passion that verged on madness, but while Zhaim had no qualms about invading Flick's mind, he never seemed aware of his young slave's hatred. Unaware or uncaring? Flick felt despair sting his unblinking eyes. What did it matter if a statue loathed its creator?
The R'il'noid sculptor walked around his latest artwork, and Flick fought desperately to move, to scream out his hatred-
"Snowy, Snowy! Wake up!"
For a moment Snowy was lost, trapped in confusion between the horror of Flick's emotions and awareness of his own identity. Then the feel of Flame's arms around him, and the concern and caring he picked up from Timi and Amber, and most of all the fact that he could move his own body to burrow closer into Flame's embrace brought him back to himself. "Nightmare," he muttered. "Sorry to wake you all up."
Behind him, he could hear Timi yawn. "You do less of that than most of us," Amber reassured him. "Go back to sleep. We've got a busy day tomorrow."
"Right," he mumbled. "G'night." He readjusted his position against Flame, and closed his eyes. He felt the physical comfort of his friends, bodies jumbled together like a pile of puppies. What had happened was no nightmare, and he knew it. His sensitivity to the thoughts of others, though it had increased greatly in the last year or so, was under at least crude control. His ability to share emotions had also increased-but that was something he could not block without constant, conscious effort. When he slept, those blocks went down. And he was most sensitive to those he cared about. Like Flick.
He owed Flick. Without the older boy's encouragement, he would never have started dancing with Flame, back in the days when he was a ten-year-old catamite and she a slave-bred concubine of the same age. That had led to a blessed respite from the worst of the abuse and more, to a realization on the part of their owner at the time that they were worth more together than separate. Later they had integrated Timi and Amber, both captives, into their dancing group. For the first time in his life, Snowy had friends he had some hope of keeping with him. For that matter, it was the first time he had had a market value high enough that he had some hope of surviving into adulthood.
Sure, he was good looking, with his bronze skin, snow-white hair, and golden eyes. So was Timi, with his black silk skin, matching, loosely curled hair and flame-amber eyes. And the two girls-Flame with her copper hair and alabaster complexion, and Amber with blond hair, blue eyes, and creamy-tan skin-set them off beautifully. But attractive young pleasure slaves were easy to find, here on Central. It was the dancing, and the increased value that gave the group, that had kept them together for over two years now.
Flick-the first real friend Snowy had found since being sold away from his mother-had been sold even before Snowy and Flame had fully developed their teamwork. Snowy forced himself to lie quietly, not wanting to disturb the others again. He didn't know how to control the linkage between himself and Flick, and he didn't dare ask the Masters who might know. His odd talents weren't supposed to exist in a slave. He wasn't supposed to exist-his mother had made that clear enough. He'd be killed without mercy if the Masters even suspected his abilities. He couldn't even discuss the situation with his friends-he trusted them, but he did not trust their ability to keep their thoughts shielded from the Master, and he didn't trust the Master at all.
It wasn't the first time he had shared Flick's emotions, and distance seemed no barrier. He was pretty sure it was daytime where Flick was and night here, yet he had experienced everything Flick had felt. Snowy cared about his dancing partners, even more than he had dared care about Flick. Would he share their pain, as he now shared Flick's, if they were sold apart?
He suppressed a shudder, and forced his mind away from that path. Flick's situation was the immediate problem, and not entirely because he knew he would continue to share Flick's agony. He owed Flick whatever help he could give. But what help was that?
He chewed on his lip, sharply aware of the chill darkness around him and the hardness of the floor beneath his body. Sharing a single covering with the other three, though, was definitely preferable to sharing a warm, soft bed with their Master. It didn't bother him or Flame, both slave-bred, nearly as much as it bothered Timi or Amber, but they were all happier in their corner of the slave quarters than in the Master's bed.
So what could he do about the situation with Flick? Maybe nothing-but just maybe ...
He didn't dare leave anything Zhaim could read in Flick's mind. He remembered something Zhaim had once said, while showing off his living sculptures to a visitor. "I am not Lai's property, and I do not agree with his soft-headed treatment of Human slaves as people! As the last of the pure R'il'nai, he deserves respect. But his ideas are outdated. When I, as the ranking crossbred, take his place, the Jarnian Confederation will be run as it should be, for the benefit of R'il'noids such as us. I left the Enclave because my father refused to grant me the artistic freedom I needed. He is not welcome here. But he can hardly refuse me the mental privacy he grants even to slaves!" Clearly Zhaim never even thought of granting mental privacy to slaves.
Snowy took a deep breath and released his blocks against sensing emotions. He hadn't actually tried to tap into a specific person's feelings before, and it took a certain amount of awkward fumbling before he could ignore the sensations of his three friends. Once he reached Flick he had to brace himself against the intensity of the older boy's agony and hatred, even worse than they had seemed before. He couldn't leave Flick like this!
He hated going into another mind, even to read thoughts or emotions. It left him feeling sick, as if he'd been swimming in garbage. Actually affecting another's thoughts or emotions was even worse. He'd done it-twice to save his own life, and once to save Timi's-but those experiences had left scars that were still painful. And the only way he could see to help Flick was to go into his friend's emotions deeper than anything he had tried before. He didn't think that what he had in mind would be reversible, either.
Clamping his teeth on his lip, Snowy tried to build an image of what he intended in his mind. No words; Zhaim might be able to detect those. Only emotions. What remained of Flick's personality to be separated entirely from bodily sensations, and sent dreaming. Not of the last few months, or even the last few years, but of the time before his capture, when he had been part of a group rebelling against an unjust and arbitrary planetary government. Only the body left tied to physical sensations, so that changes in heart rate and breathing would convince Zhaim that his captive still felt his manipulations. A shallow smokescreen of the mental reactions Zhaim would expect. But no way of returning from the dream. When he had the emotional message complete, Snowy tried to transmit it to Flick, with a sense of question.
The response was immediate, overwhelming, and positive.
Snowy hesitated an instant longer. It wouldn't work if Zhaim went deeply into Flick's mind, but he rarely did that, not any more. Snowy was a slave himself; there was no possible way he could get Flick away from Zhaim physically. And Flick hadn't really understood that he was being offered a choice; his response had been more of "if only this were possible." What frightened Snowy most, though, was his mother's remembered warning. Could the interference with Flick's emotional state, if Zhaim ever recognized it, be traced back to Snowy?
But the alternative was leaving Flick in his current state of suffering.
Carefully, Snowy went deeper into Flick's emotions. He knew what he wanted to do, and he was pretty sure it was possible, but he was working by trial and error. Several times he had to back up, realizing he had made a wrong step, but finally he had the configuration he was after. He attuned himself to Flick's changed emotions for a moment. Not peaceful, no, but hopeful, excited, looking forward to a better world. A world that would never come, now, for Flick-but Flick didn't know that, and never would. I still owe you, he thought, if there's anything I can ever do. Then he made the last move of his scheme, cutting himself loose permanently from Flick's emotions. The hatred dropped away as he felt his own body around him again.
Not all of the pain dropped away, though. His lower lip was throbbing, and he tasted blood. A quick inspection confirmed that he had bitten it through. Again. Hastily he opened to his friends' emotions, confirming that they were all asleep. And with his head buried against Flame's shoulder, the injured lip wasn't likely to be on any of the monitors. Guiltily he reached for the damaged tissues, and began Healing the injury.
* * *
Flick's situation and the minor annoyance of his own bitten lip were by no means the only things Snowy had to worry about. The following day was more than just "busy." Master Kuril had guests that evening he was determined to impress, and the dancing group was a large part of his entertainment. Not just as dancers, either-he had made it clear that he expected them to entertain his guests in more-personal-ways after the dancing.
"I think-Ow!-he's losing interest in us," Snowy commented after the guests had left, while Davy, the overseer of Kuril's slaves, was massaging his sore muscles. His scalp hurt, too-there were times when his hip-length hair had him envying the kitchen slaves, who were kept hairless to protect the Master's food.
"Sorry," Davy said absently, his hands continuing to knead the boy's shoulders. "But you'd all be a lot stiffer tomorrow without this."
Snowy sighed and tried to relax muscles that still wanted to knot with tension. "I know. Davy, you're the best overseer we've ever had. You won't get in trouble for this, will you?"
"Not 'til he trades in about fifty pounds of fat for muscle and quits thinking he can get away with things that'd strain even a fit body. He needs me too much. I don't know how you kids got off as easy as you did. I saw some of the roughing up those guests gave you."
Snowy didn't have to be reminded of that. His ability to Heal his own injuries, and to some extent those of his friends, had allowed him to take care of the worst damage. But quite aside from the care he had to take not to be suspected of doing anything unusual, Healing took energy-lots of energy-and while he had eaten everything he'd had a chance to that evening, he had been ravenous and shaking by the time Davy arrived.
"They weren't all bad," Timi giggled drunkenly.
Timi, admitting that any slave user on Central was less than an ogre? Snowy turned his head slightly so that he could see his friend. He'd already scanned Timi enough to know that his only serious problem was from the level of alcohol in his blood, and he suspected that Timi had cooperated fully in that particular bit of abuse. As far as he could remember, he had seen Timi with only one of Kuril's guests, a slender but fit-looking man whose hair, skin and eyes were all the same shade of golden brown. Snowy had found himself dealing with three at once, and he had barely managed to protect himself without revealing his talents.
"Who'd you get, Timi?" he asked.
"Guy called Derik," Timi caroled happily. "D'you believe it? Saw I didn't like it and he just had me rubbing his back 'n talkin'. 'N shared freshments." He hiccupped.
"Obviously," Davy said sourly. "I hope you remembered how to do a back rub properly."
Davy had drilled them all on that, Snowy thought. One more skill that increased their chances of survival. He'd been too busy himself to pay much attention to Timi's partner, but if Kuril was losing interest as fast as Snowy suspected, they'd likely be sold soon. He turned his head a little farther, and rolled his eyes up to where he could see Davy. "Know anything about him?" he asked, knowing that the overseers, slave and free, had a loose communication network.
"Don't like his overseer," Davy replied. "Derik Tarlian himself-well, he's way above our Master. High R'il'noid-Inner Council level, half brother to Lai himself, and supposed to be a top esper. Number two to Zhaim, I think. Overseer complains he spoils his slaves-but that overseer sure doesn't. Doesn't let Derik know half of what goes on in the slave quarters, either."
Davy wouldn't name someone he disapproved of, Snowy had observed. The fact that he used Derik Tarlian's name without hesitation, while refusing to name either the overseer or his own owner, told Snowy more than his explicit comments had. And if the overseer was really hiding what went on in the slave quarters, Derik Tarlian was probably not in the habit of probing unwilling minds. Snowy had tried to avoid owners who might suspect his abilities in the past, but he had a fair degree of confidence in his own ability to project an image of a normal slave mind. Owners completely lacking in esper talents certainly existed-most Human slaves had Human owners-but they rarely had the credit to buy a group as expensive as theirs. And if this Derik did not try a deep probe ... He looked back at Timi. "What did you talk about?" he asked.
"Dancin'," Timi yawned. The slur in his voice was increasing. "An' music, 'n food. Wanted t' know who did our cho.. chor-uh-'rangements. Tol'm you did." His eyes closed, and he began to snore gently.
Snowy chewed on his lip. Timi was hypersensitive to esper probes and hated them. Unlikely this Derik had probed him. Maybe it would be safe enough. Kuril was far from the worst owner he'd ever had-Colo Kenarian, who'd owned him briefly even before he'd met Flick, had been far worse, and from what he'd learned from Flick, even Colo was not the worst possible. But if Kuril was going to sell them, this guy might be worth encouraging. Carefully. Staying open to the R'il'noid's emotions might give Snowy the information he needed to act in a way that would attract the man, and without alerting Derik that there was anything unusual about Snowy. If Derik visited again, Snowy decided, he would check the man out himself. Davy's attitude toward Derik's overseer bothered him a little, but overseers could sometimes be maneuvered into getting rid of themselves. And it was owners, not overseers, who generally had the final decision on buying or selling a slave. Yes, he decided as his muscles finally relaxed under Davy's manipulations, bad overseer or not, this guy looked like he might be a better owner than Kuril. Snowy hoped Derik would come again before Kuril sold them.
Excerpted from Homecoming by Sue Ann Bowling Copyright © 2010 by Sue Ann Bowling. Excerpted by permission.
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