In the evening, Meagan led her exhausted horse back to the corral and rubbed her down the best she could. She checked the mare’s legs and back again, running her hands over the horse’s tendons and muscles. The mare seemed fit, although a bit thin and too tired, but there was nothing to do about that. She patted her neck, whispered, “Good night, Sorda,” and went into the camp.
The gate clanged shut behind her, and she realized she was the last one inside.
She stopped and looked out of the bars. The door had a lock on it, and she wanted to see it better. The drone in charge of the door buzzed at her, but Meagan just waved irritably. “If you want to tell me something, speak in my language,” she said to the drone.
The drone pulled out a Nar-gun and waved it.
Meagan felt her courage failing, but her temper got the better of her. “Oh, that’s right,” she sneered. “Just shoot me, why don’t you? Then you can explain to your superiors why there’s one less slave in the camp.” She had no idea if the guard understood or not. Before she could speak any more a hand caught her shoulder and spun her around. It was Luke, his face tense.
“Get away from there, and don’t rile him. If he shoots you, you could be injured.”
“What do I care?” Meagan pushed him away. She followed Luke, though, with a backward glance at the guard. His Nar-gun was still trained in her direction.
“If you are injured,” Luke went on, speaking to her over his shoulder, “they take you to that building, and you are never seen again.”
“Oh yeah? And just where do I go?” she asked, pushing a lock of dusty hair out of her eyes.
“You don’t want to know.” Luke stood still. His face was dreadfully pale when he looked at her, his eyes had violet bruises of fatigue around them, and his mouth was drawn downward in bitter lines. Luke’s red hair was gray with dust and his hands were blistered. He held one arm cradled to his chest as though it was hurting him.
Meagan felt a wave of guilt wash over her. He was looking out for her, and she was big enough to take care of herself. “What happened to your arm?”
“I strained it. It’s nothing.”
“I’ll rub it for you after dinner,” she said. “Speaking of which, wasn’t that the dinner whistle?”
Luke nodded. “It was. Shall we go dine, my lady?” He held out his elbow.
Meagan hesitated a moment, surprised, then she took his arm and smiled. “After you, kind sir.”
At dinner, she noticed he didn’t eat much. “Eat, Luke,” she said. “You’ll need your health.”
“I’m not hungry,” he replied.
“It’s because he’s figured out what it is, that’s why,” came the caustic voice of Jonah Skeeter, right behind her.
Meagan turned. Jonah stood with his arms crossed on his chest, looking down at her. “Having a good swill?” he asked.
Meagan frowned. “What are you talking about?”
Luke stood up and took a threatening step toward Jonah. “Keep your mouth shut,” he snarled.
Meagan was staggered. She’d never seen Luke angry. In her mind, he was always calm, always even-tempered. Now his hands clenched into tight fists, and he looked like he was about to explode. “Luke! What is going on?”
“He’s figured it out.” Jonah jerked his chin at Luke. “Haven’t you? You know what we’re being served in the pig trough, don’t you?”
Meagan sat back on her heels and gazed around. Luke’s lips were white. He locked eyes with Jonah. There seemed to be some sort of contest going on, and Meagan had no idea what it could be about.
Next to her, another woman turned and looked at up Jonah. The woman’s face hardened, and she said quietly, “Don’t you say another word, young man. We’re all slaves here, but by the gods of the eight corners of the universe, don’t say another word.”
Jonah opened his mouth to speak, then spun on his heel, and left. Luke’s shoulders slumped, and he smiled at the woman sitting next to Meagan. “Thank you, Ma’am,” he said.
“That’s all right. My name is Dora, by the way. I was a herder, too. I recognized your accents.”
“Are all the slaves herders?” asked Meagan.
“Nearly all of them are, yes. The Raiders use the herds to zero in on isolated groups of people. Haven’t you ever wondered about that?” Dora took another handful of food and ate it slowly, her eyes on Meagan.
“I wondered about that, of course. My parents told me the Raiders used the mist curtains that the horses created as they tried to get back into a herd. The horses, herd animals, were isolated by the Raiders until they opened a passage. The Raiders would then ride through it. Isn’t that how it happens?”
Dora bit her lip. “Sometimes. Mostly, though, it’s not. I’ve seen what they do.”
“What is it?” Luke crouched down next to Meagan and looked keenly at Dora. “I’ve always wondered how they control the passages.”
Dora looked around her and lowered her voice. “They torture a horse. They take a horse and torture it until it opens a passage. They use the lead mare. Sometimes the horse dies.”
“By the gods of the eight corners of the universe,” whispered Luke.
“How long have you been here?” asked Meagan, trying to suppress a shudder at the thought of the Raiders torturing horses in order to control the passages.
“It will be ten months, soon. I make marks on my walls to keep track of time.”
“Hasn’t the mine been discovered yet?”
“I think so, once. The drones all stopped us one day and made us go into a deep passage. Then they closed a door so thick all the sound was muffled, even the sound of the dynamite. We stayed there for hours. I think it was some sort of Raider galactic police coming to make sure there were no slaves here. I bet even the Raiders have laws against slaves. We seem to be captured by the outlaws among them. ” She gave a small cough. “Well, at least that’s my theory. I’ve got precious little to go on, and lots of time to reflect, but I was an anthropologist, and I can’t help trying to make sense out of all this.”
“You think all the Raiders aren’t like this lot?” Meagan couldn’t keep disbelief from her voice. “If they were civilized, they’d have contacted the Federation ages ago. They’re just barbaric aliens. Police? Ha! I bet it was just a rival mining company.”
“What happened next?” Luke asked.
“After that, a lot of the slaves gave up hope of being rescued. It’s always in the back of our minds, even if we’ve never heard of anyone being saved from the Raiders’ mines. There were many deaths in the days after that. The Raiders had to go and capture new slaves. They got that family over there, and the lout you were talking to and his brothers, and you two.”
Meagan looked where Dora was pointing, and she saw a family sitting in a straight row in front of the trough. There was the father, mother, and their three children. Before eating, they bowed to the trough and gestured with their hands to the eight corners of the universe. She turned to Luke. “How long until we’re rescued?”
He shook his head, his face bleak.
“Eat, Meagan. You’ll need your strength,” he said slowly.