Pung stared at his owner with incredulity. This Yellow Rank had always been odd, but his behavior had slipped to downright bizarre. Why pack so many supplies into his hoverchair? He was not an adventurous Torth, and the middle of a sleep cycle was a strange time to pack for a trip.
And what sort of nightmare could make a Torth wake up screaming?
“Obey Me,” his owner commanded in a dangerous tone.
Obedience was all that a good slave should think about. Pung rushed to adjacent rooms, gathering supplies and doing his best to ignore the implications of what he was doing. Slaves who made a habit of speculating about their superiors never lived to old age. Soon his work-shift would end, and he would hurry to his bunk-room and enjoy some sleep while his coworker took over matters here.
The Yellow kept pointing to things and giving orders. “Fetch my extra painkillers. Add the portable light. Add the folded thermal blanket, and three of my outer garments. Fill the remaining room in my hoverchair with nutrition bars.”
Just when Pung thought he was done, his owner said, “Put me into my hoverchair.”
Pung would rather be sweeping floors. He was good at mindless tasks, which allowed him thinking time to invent new gambling strategies. He struggled to carry the small Yellow, who was the size of a grown ummin. This task was really better suited to his govki coworker.
Once seated, his owner did not stop giving commands. “Fasten that cloth around my leg cuff.” He indicated one of the ornate linens used to blot his hair dry after a bath. “Wrap it around three times. Make sure it’s tight and covers every part of the golden cuff. Then make sure it’s secured with pins.”
A chatty Torth seemed unnatural. Pung tried not to wonder why his owner wanted to hide his shiny ankle ornament under an ugly wrap. It was not his place to speculate.
“Wrap me in my outer robe,” the Yellow commanded.
Suppressing a yawn, Pung dressed his owner. The thick golden cloth, shimmery with geometric patterns, hid his bulked-up ankle.
“Accompany me.” His owner sped away.
Pung scurried to keep up with the hoverchair, watching his owner’s hands for a dismissal. But apparently his owner had no intention of relaxing like an ordinary Yellow Rank. No. Instead, he seemed preoccupied with his data tablet.
He stopped at his favorite workstation and used his tablet to make a glowing hologram to appear. “This is a map.”
Pung backed away. Bizarre commands were one thing, but Torth knowledge was off limits to slaves. Any ummin who tried to poke a data tablet or drive a vehicle would be tortured to death. This must be a trick or a trap.
“I won’t hurt you.” His owner sounded impatient. “Now pay attention. Here’s where you’ll enter.” Part of the holograph blackened, growing more solid than the rest. “It’s a ventilation shaft.” He used his data tablet, and a glowing line appeared. “Memorize this route.” The end region glowed. “Here’s where you’ll find the three items I require.”
Maybe his owner had suddenly developed a sick sense of humor. This had to be a joke.
“You’ll be going into the bedchamber of the fat Indigo Blue girl,” his owner said, as dispassionate as any Torth. “You know which one I’m talking about. I need you to collect her data tablet and her wristband.” He tapped his bony wrist to demonstrate. “The third and most important item is a rectangular case. It’s about this big.” He indicated its size, and Pung recalled the case wedged in the fat Torth’s hoverchair.
“I’ll make sure you’re protected,” his owner said. “Fetch the case, the wristband, and the tablet.”
Pung took an involuntary step, instinctively obedient. Then he stopped. This was highly illegal. If the Indigo Blue caught a slave sneaking through her domain with the criminal intention to steal, she would surely have him thrown in prison. He’d be skinned alive.
“Follow Me,” the Yellow commanded, floating away.
Pung didn’t move. Dozens of nussian bodyguards patrolled that palatial suite, and hundreds of slaves tended the indoor lake and gardens. Nobody could sneak into her bedchamber unnoticed.
For a slave, death lurked in every street, in every slave zone. To be forewarned was to be lucky. Still, Pung had never expected to die like a piece of sand, unnoticed. After all the leniency, his owner had proven to be more insane and deadly than any other Torth. He was caught between the sand and the sun. Tonight, he would die. Quaking in terror, he closed his eyes and waited for fatal pain.
No pain gripped him. Pung cautiously opened one eye.
His owner tapped his bony fingers on the curved arm of his hoverchair. “We’ll work together.” He turned off the holograph. “Follow.”
Pung fought a surge of anger. His owner had a lot of nerve, trying to manipulate his poor slave on a fatal quest. Maybe Pung could pretend to go along with it for a while. Then he’d outrun or outmaneuver the hoverchair. Runaway slaves were always captured and tortured to death, but maybe he could evade capture by hiding in the sewage shafts.
“See that jar with red swirls?” His owner paused in a niche full of potions and creams. “Pour it into an empty vial. Then use a clean eyedropper to add ten drops from the opalescent blue container.”
They were near the menagerie, and restless animals squawked and rustled in their cages. Pung followed the commands with trembling hands.
“Gently shake the vial until it turns a milky blue color,” his owner said, working on his data tablet.
A strange feeling pumped through Pung. It felt like danger was inside him. If only his coworker could hear their owner chatting like a fellow gambler. He had never heard of a Torth conspiring with a slave. As he gently shook the vial, mysterious colors swirled inside.
“Use a clean eyedropper to add a single drop from that black jar,” his owner said, gesturing. “And hold your breath while you do it.”
Pung did so, while his owner continued to talk. “Don’t inhale. Hold your breath until you’ve screwed the cap onto the vial. Make sure it’s tightly sealed.”
When all of this was done, the small vial glowed with a faint green light.
“Perfect,” his owner said, like an elder giving approval. “Now hide that in your robes, the way you do when you smuggle food.”
Pung hadn’t guessed that any Torth knew about his smuggling activities. He was lucky to be alive.
“That vial will protect you,” his owner went on. “When you twist the cap a little bit and wave it near someone’s nostrils, that person will instantly fall into a deep sleep. Just be careful not to inhale it, or you’ll fall asleep too. And never unscrew it all the way. Don’t drink it, or you’ll die.”
Pung stared at the vial in horror. Any slave who touched a weapon could expect imprisonment and death by torture. This vial was smaller than a blaster glove or a knife, but it might doom him to suffer the same fate as the giant.
“Lots of slaves smuggle small secrets,” his owner said. “As long as you don’t behave suspiciously, you’ll go unnoticed.” He floated towards the antechamber, beckoning Pung to follow.
Pung clutched the vial, uncertain. He didn’t know if he could trust anything that his owner said. Wouldn’t it be safer for his owner to simply shoot the fat Torth with a blaster glove?
“Murder would get both of us killed.” His owner paused in the massive doorway. “If she gets shot, she will scream a silent alarm while she dies. Then an army of Red Ranks will seize us before we can get far.”
As if they were conspiring together. As equals. A sense of unreality engulfed Pung.
“The only way we’ll survive,” his owner said, “is if she remains asleep. When you enter her bedchamber, you’ll emerge near fans which circulate air. You’ll be high up, on a ledge, out of sight. She’ll probably be asleep, but even if she’s awake, she can’t read your mind from that distance, and she won’t know you’re there. Unscrew that vial near a fan. Everyone in the room will swiftly fall asleep.”
If stealing from a Torth were as easy as smuggling food, everyone would do it. Pung could hardly believe that his owner believed this plan would work. Any random bodyguard or slave might enter her bedchamber while Pung was stealing the items, and surely someone would see him on his way in or out of the palatial suite.
“The bodyguards will be occupied,” his owner said cryptically. “And her slaves will assume you’re one of them. Just make sure the Indigo Blue stays asleep, or we’re both dead.”
The dangerous feeling seemed to be crawling around inside of Pung’s skin. His owner would probably escape justice for all these crimes. Meanwhile, Pung’s jangling nerves would get him condemned, even if nothing else did.
“All slaves are afraid.” His owner’s voice echoed off the marble walls. “You all hide guilty little secrets. You mate with someone when you’re not supposed to. You talk in whispers when no Torth are nearby. You smuggle food.” He gave Pung a pointed look. “Anxiety won’t make you stand out.”
Pung supposed that might be true.
“There are quadrillions of ummins in the universe,” his owner said. “As far as the Torth are concerned, you’re all interchangeable. They’ll have no clue how to find the thief. Especially if you’re wise enough to toss that sleeping vial down a garbage chute. Now, grab a tote bag.” His owner gestured to the supply closet. “That’s how you’ll collect the items.”
As if this was a mere trip to a trading forum. Pung chose one of the bags studded with tiny gemstones, but he didn’t feel ready. Maybe his collar would go off duty before he had a chance to sneak into the palace. That would give him an excuse to escape all this craziness. Once his collar went dark, he would have a grace period to get to his bunk-room and settle down to sleep—and then, if he continued to move briskly, or if he wandered too far from his assigned sleeping neighborhood, the collar would pinch him until he collapsed into unconsciousness. His owner couldn’t order him around after that.
“Come here.” The Yellow pulled something out of his pocket. “Take this.”
The device was the size of a finger. Pung studied it, trying to figure out what it might be for.
“Your collar is reset,” the Yellow said. “When you wave it near a collar in dormant mode, it will go active.”
Pung wanted to curse out loud, but at the same time, he was shocked that a Torth would trust him with this much power. With this tiny wand, he could rule the deep shafts of the slave Tunnels. He would never have to go to his assigned bunk-room.
“Hide it.” His owner looked weary. “One more thing. It will be to your advantage to look generic.” He studied Pung critically. “Try to scuttle like most ummins. And adjust your hat, so it’s not as memorable.”
Pung tugged his hat folds until they were equal in length. Maybe he would actually survive all of these crimes and live to tell Kessa about it! Even Weptolyso would be impressed. He felt as if he’d become the hero of a story, one of the legends in which a god gave a hapless slave a cloth that turned them invisible.
“You’ll want to avoid bragging.” His owner floated past the tall arched windows of the antechamber, past mountains under starlight. “If you feel smug or triumphant, you will get caught.”
That chilled his excitement.
“Now then.” The Yellow floated to the exit. “Once we leave here, you’ll need to ignore anything I say and just obey my hand commands. If I speak, pretend to listen and obey. But watch my hands.”
They might as well be conspirators. It seemed the Yellow couldn’t rely on other mind readers . . . or perhaps he had only revealed a fraction of his plans. He might be planning a larger crime spree, something even more deadly than stealing from a high rank.
“It is not your place to speculate.” His owner reached for the door panel. “Just obey my hand commands and complete this task, and you have a good chance of survival.”
Pung didn’t need to wonder what would happen if he failed. All slaves knew the cost of failure.